Butler wins battle of MVP candidates as Bulls ground Rockets

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Jimmy Butler might not be comfortable talking about being an early-season candidate for MVP, but his game is speaking loud and clear for him.

Butler scored 22 points, including five in the final 2:56, as the Bulls roared past the Houston Rockets down the stretch in a 114-105 victory Monday night at the United Center. He also held another MVP candidate, James Harden, to 7-for-22 shooting, including 0-for-9 in the second half.

The victory improved the Bulls to 25-10 and was another flexing of the muscles against a playoff-caliber team from the Western Conference. The Bulls have beaten the Grizzlies, Pelicans and the Rockets in the last few weeks.

“I don’t know to tell you the truth,’’ Butler said, when asked if his match against Harden felt like a battle of potential MVPs. “I mean, we’ve just got a really good team, man. Everyone showed up [Monday night]. So MVP or not MVP, we wouldn’t have got this win if it wasn’t for a team effort.’’

It was typical of Butler to downplay his contribution, but his peers have taken notice..

“[Butler has] gotten a lot better,’’ Harden said. “Offensively, he’s in attack mode. He’s being aggressive. His teammates have a lot of confidence in him. Defensively, he’s always been active. He’s playing very well.’’

Rockets big man Dwight Howard took it a step further.

“He should be up there in the MVP running,’’ Howard said. “He’s playing great basketball. He’s been one of the most consistent players all season. He’s scoring, playing defense, making game-winners. He’s having an unbelievable season. It’s like, ‘Where did he come from?’ ’’

Butler had help from Pau Gasol (team-high 27 points and 14 rebounds) and rookie Nikola Mirotic, who tallied nine of his 17 points in the fourth quarter. The Bulls outscored the Rockets (23-11) 19-5 in the final 3:19.

“I have to say thanks to the coach because he trusted me,’’ Mirotic said. “He let me play last minutes. And what I have to do is keep playing, stay positive and play simple basketball.’’

Almost lost in the victory was Derrick Rose. His shooting touch still wasn’t there — he shot 6-for-17 and is 25-for-95 (26 percent) over his last five games — but the attention Rose received late opened up the floor for his team.

“Derrick’s decision-making was great,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “The big thing was the attack, getting the ball up the floor quickly, getting into the paint, forcing their bigs to the baseline. Derrick was making the right read.’’

Thibodeau has all but begged Rose to do that for most of the season.

Butler’s focus remained on doing whatever it takes to win games and get his team poised for a deep playoff run.

“I thought Jimmy competed as well as you can,’’ Thibodeau said. “Jimmy on both sides of the ball makes us go.’’

Joakim Noah agreed.

“Jimmy is a great player,’’ Noah said. “He’s hungry and he’s humble. As long as he stays on this path, he’s going to be an unbelievable player.’’

Email: jcowley@suntimes.com

Twitter: @suntimes_hoops

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