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Bulls lose Jimmy Butler to a knee injury, but early signs are it’s not serious

DENVER – Breathe.

No easy exercise for the Bulls organization for about 20 minutes Friday night, and it had very little to do with the high altitude of Denver, either.

With 1:06 left in the first half in the eventual 115-110 loss to the Nuggets, two-time All-Star Jimmy Butler took to the air as he neared the rim, was fouled by Joffrey Lauvergne, and landed awkwardly on the hardwood of the Pepsi Center.

The gathering around Butler quickly turned serious when trainers signaled for a cart to wheel the shooting guard off. After sitting briefly, however, Butler wanted to shoot the two free throws in case he could return.

He got his wish, splitting the pair, but as far as a return, it didn’t happen. Fortunately for Butler and the Bulls, X-rays were negative and it was ruled a left knee sprain.

Even better news came after the game, as one Bulls player said he heard it was a mild sprain and the thought was Butler could return as early as Monday in Charlotte.

Details will be offered up Saturday afternoon, as first-year coach Fred Hoiberg said that Butler would travel with the team to Minneapolis and then have an MRI at 10:30 a.m.

“He said he heard something pop,’’ Derrick Rose said of Butler, who was unavailable to the media. “With my knees I knew that was something serious, but came back here [in the locker room] a couple times, just using the restroom, and seeing that they were icing it, and I guess it was nothing major.’’

Big picture? No. Friday night against Denver? Considering Butler had 19 points and five assists in just 18:29 of playing time, his loss was a hole that eventually led to unrepairable damage.

Not at first, as the Bulls stormed out of the second half to build an 18-point lead in the third quarter, but in the final 12 minutes, as Denver (20-31) ran the short-handed Bulls down and outscored them 42-21 in that final quarter.

With Pau Gasol out with a sore left hand, Mike Dunleavy (back) expected to make his season debut against the Timberwolves, and then Butler in the locker room, even Rose’s 30 points and dazzling play couldn’t stop the inevitable.

“Those guys went out and battled, got us the lead,’’ Hoiberg said of the loss. “We were in complete attack mode, and completely took over the momentum of the game [in the third]. I did see heads hanging, walking down the floor, lost the attack, lost what got us the lead. Then defensively we missed some assignments late that allowed them to seal it.’’

It also sent the Bulls (27-22) to sixth-place in the Eastern Conference playoff standings, and 2-3 on this current seven-game road trip.

“Yeah, I mean it’s something where when we do it right it works,’’ Hoiberg said, when asked if he was surprised that this team continued to forget the basics of his philosophies, especially on the offensive side of the ball. “And we show them clips on that every day. We show clips of when we don’t do it, it’s ineffective.

“It’s continuing to reiterate those things and talk to the team about how much more success we have when we do it right.’’