Jimmy Butler has raised game, but Bulls fall short to Kings

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SACRAMENTO – There is life beyond Derrick Rose.

It was hard to see in the 103-88 loss to the Sacramento Kings Thursday night at Sleep Train Arena, but it’s been proven the past few seasons.

A deep playoff run without him? Likely not. But regular-season wins without Rose? That’s been a normal way of life for the Bulls since the 2013-14 season.

There’s been success without Pau Gasol. The first-year Bulls big man makes Carlos Boozer a bad memory, but Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson have shown that they can carry the load short-term with Gasol sidelined.

The one position the Bulls cannot afford to lose? The two-guard spot. The one player at that spot who has become almost irreplaceable? Jimmy Butler.

If the Bulls are to lose the fourth-year player to a long-term injury the way he’s going about his business right now? Well, playing into May and June might just be a pipedream.

“I don’t want to put a lid on it,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said on Thursday, when asked about Butler and his ceiling going forward. “We want him to keep going. I love what he’s doing. His work ethic, his intelligence, the drive. When you put that with his talent, the sky is the limit. And he’s shown that. The thing that I like is he doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low, he plays both sides of the ball, and he plays to win.’’

One look around the Association, Butler might just be emerging as one of the best all-around two guards the league has going right now.

Butler entered the game with the Kings leading the team in scoring (21.3 points per game) and steals (1.44 per game), second in field goal percentage (.508), and third in rebounding (6.2 rebounds per game) and assists (3.9 per game).

And oh by the way, he just happens to lead them in minutes played, with 40.3 a game, as well as usually matched up defensively with the best non-center on the opposing team.

He then went out in that loss and scored a team-high 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds.

Butler might not have entered that elite status just yet, but he’s definitely on that stairway.

“Yeah, yeah, I mean when you look at his career so far, each year he’s made a quantum leap,’’ Thibodeau said, when the “elite’’ title was thrown out. “Again, I don’t want to put a cap on it, I want him to keep getting better, and he’s showing that every night. He goes out, attacks on both sides. You know he’s going to attack on offense, he’s going to attack on defense. It’s a great approach to have.’’

An even better approach to execute, because after Butler, the depth chart goes Kirk Hinrich – who is more of a point guard than a two – and then the likes of Tony Snell and E’Twaun Moore.

The good news for Butler and his teammates is that while they have been short-handed most of the season, reinforcements are coming.

Rose (left hamstring) went through the entire shootaround on Thursday morning, while Gasol (left calf) felt like his injury wasn’t long-term.

“It was just [Wednesday] walking through a little bit and doing exercises, it’s something I still feel,’’ Gasol said of the injury that has now cost him two games. “It’s still there. So we’re just trying to make sure we don’t have any major setbacks and this thing doesn’t prolong itself more than it has to.

“I’m definitely very hopeful it’s not [long-term]. I don’t like getting my expectations high because then disappointment and frustration comes in. But I’m fairly hopeful that I should be back fairly soon.’’

Email: jcowley@suntimes.com

Twitter: @suntimes_hoops

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