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Bulls update: All-Star Jimmy Butler could return tonight vs. Hornets

While Derrick Rose has not yet been cleared for contact, the Bulls continue to get healthier down the stretch. Guard Jimmy Butler, who has missed the last 11 games with a sprained elbow, participated in the shootaround at the United Center and could play against the Charlotte Hornets on Monday night.

“We’ll see when he warms up tonight. But it looks like it could be a go,” coach Tom Thibodeau said after the shootaround. “He feels good.”

The Bulls are 5-6 since Butler suffered the injury on March 1 against the Los Angeles Clippers. He was expected to miss 3-6 weeks. Forward Taj Gibson expected to play his third game since recovering from an ankle injury that cost him 11 games.

The Bulls, of course, are still waiting on Derrick Rose, who is recovering from knee surgery and not expected to return until the last week of the regular season or the playoffs.

Here’s what’s up with the Bulls as the prepare to play the Hornets on Monday night:

1. Even after a disappointing collapse in a road loss to the Pistons — when the Bulls were outscored 54-19 in the final 18:30 — the Bulls have avoided plummeting in the Eastern Conference playoff race since losing Rose, Butler and Gibson to injuries in a six-day span from Feb. 24-March 1.

Despite going 6-8 since Rose was injured, the Bulls (42-29) are in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, one-half game behind the third-place Toronto Raptors and 1 1/2 games ahead of the fifth-place Washington Wizards. The Bulls, who can clinch a playoff spot with a victory over the Hornets, would have home-c0urt advantage in the first round of the playoffs if they can hold on to fourth place in the conference.

“We want to get the highest seed possible — there’s no question about that,” center Joakim Noah said. “But it is what it is. We’ve got to go out there [and do it]. It’s the best time of year.”

2. Noah said he still thinks “we’re the toughest team to beat in a seven-game series,” but acknowledged the Bulls have to improve their defense and especially their defensive toughness. “When we play tough basketball, we’re tough to beat,” he said. But there is work to be done in that area, he said. “We have guys coming back. We have to work on our chemistry,” Noah added. “Thibs’ defense is predicated on five guys moving on both sides of the ball. Live and die by the contested two — that’s our philosophy. Hopefully we can get our defense to a higher level.”

Thibodeau again pointed to injuries and continuity when asked about the team not reaching a level of team defense that some of his previous Bulls teams have had at this point of the season. “We’ve never had as many missed games, missed practices. But that’s our reality,” he said. “Our challenge is, we have enough time so we have to figure it out.”

Futhermore, he added, “It’s not just defense. It’s offense as well. That’s how you build continuity. You build execution through repetition. The only way you build that is by practice.”

3. Butler’s return — whether it’s tonight against Charlotte or Wednesday night in Toronto — figures to give the Bulls’ defense a boost. And it pushes Tony Snell to a bench role, which makes the second unit stronger.

“He’s probably our best two-way player,” Thibodeau said of Butler. “Anytime you get a guy like that back, it helps in all areas. It adds to the depth. It’s good.”

4. To the layman, the Bulls’ collapse against the Pistons seemed to signify a lack of mental toughness and ability to recover upon which previous Thibodeau-coached teams have thrived. Thibodeau was asked if he saw it as a hiccup or a sign of a bigger issue.

“You have to give Detroit credit. They played well,” he said. “The first two-and-a-half quarters, we did a lot of good things. The challenge is to play 48 minutes. When you get a big lead, you can’t let your guard down. In this league, no lead is safe. [With] how quickly you can make up ground with the [3-point shot], it doesn’t take much — a turnover, a quick 3, a missed layup, a complaint to an official — all of the sudden, that could be 10 points in a minute. We have to guard against that.”

5. While every game is a big one for the Bulls, this one is even bigger for the Hornets (30-38), who are a half-game ahead of the Celtics (30-39) and Pacers (30-39) for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East.

The Bulls lost to the Hornets 98-96 on Feb. 25 at the United Center in their first game without Rose after his latest injury. The Hornets also beat the Bulls 101-91 in Charlotte on March 13.

The Hornets beat the Timberwolves 109-98 in Minneapolis on Sunday night, but have lost five of their previous seven games.

“They’re a tough team. We had a tough game with them down in Charlotte,” Thibodeau said. “They had a great win last night. They can play small. Their wings are real tough. When you look at [Gerald] Henderson, [Michael] Kidd-Gilchrist is a tough matchup, [Lance] Stephenson comes in and has gotten comfortable.

“They can play small. [Al] Jefferson is a load inside. Marvin Williams stretches you out as a stretch four. The two point guards together presents problems. It’s a tough team. They started off slowly. And they’ve worked themselves back into a playoff position.”