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Jimmy Butler scores 19 in return as Bulls beat Hornets without Noah

With three weeks left in the regular season, the Bulls’ game plan is simple: Get healthy, stay healthy and let Tom Thibodeau Do. His. Job.

The Bulls took a significant step in that direction Monday night against the Charlotte Hornets when leading scorer Jimmy Butler returned to the lineup after missing 11 games with a sprained elbow. With Taj Gibson in his third game back from an ankle injury, the Bulls are waiting only on Derrick Rose’s return to get back to full strength.

Even with Joakim Noah taking the night off with “general soreness” —  he’s expected to play against the Raptors in Toronto on Wednesday — Butler’s return gave the Bulls the boost they needed in a 98-86 victory over the Hornets at the United Center that clinched the Bulls’ seventh consecutive playoff berth.

Butler showed signs of rust after a 22-day absence — he missed nine of his first 11 shots from the field. He even lost his shoe in the first minute of the game. But he played fearlessly, took the ball to the hoop and finished with 19 points on 6-of-20 shooting and nine rebounds.

“I’m glad to be back — but I’ve got to get better,” Butler said. “I feel like I hurt us in a lot of ways — even though we got the win, don’t get me wrong. But I made a lot of mental mistakes that just can’t happen. I’m confident in my game. But I’ve got a long way to go.”

Wearing a sleeve over his left elbow, Butler was determined to go all out in his first game since he suffered the injury running into a pick March 1 against the Los Angeles Clippers.

“I forgot all about it completely, to tell you the truth,” Butler said. “Maybe overaggressive, but you’ve kind of got to shoot the rust off. That’s what Pau [Gasol] told me to do. I definitely [did that] with 20 balls.”

Thibodeau said prior to the game that Butler’s minutes would monitored based on how he looked. Butler ended up playing 39 minutes.

“It’s great to have him back,” Thibodeau said. “He missed a bunch of shots he normally makes, so his timing is not quite there. But as the game went on, he started getting back in his rhythm.

Butler was 0-for-2 on three-point shots, but was rewarded for his aggressiveness. He made 7-of-10 free throws.

“I felt good,” Butler said. “Rhythm was off, missing stuff I normally don’t miss. But that’s what teammates are for. I’ve got the best teammates, telling me to keep shooting and be aggressive. You can’t be in a better situation.”

Nikola Mirotic scored 28 points — including 14 in the fourth quarter — to lead the Bulls (43-28). Gasol scored 25 points and grabbed 12 rebounds for his NBA-best 47th double-double. Guard Aaron Brooks had 13 points and 10 assists.

The last piece of the puzzle is a huge one. The Bulls still expect Rose to return in time for the playoffs if not the final week of the regular season. “He’s making good, steady progress,” Thibodeau said. “He’s doing everything in practice except the contact part.”

Rose could be cleared for contact this week, which would be the biggest boost of all.

“We still have 10 games to prove how consistent we really are,” Gasol said. “See if we can get bodies back — get Jo back; get Derrick back; keep the guys that have been out [healthy]; [and] the rest of us stay healthy. I think when things kind of click you can feel the momentum and things can turn out very well.

“In this league you have to take it one game at a time and go from there. But I think we’re in a good position. But we have to prove a lot still because everything is just so tight [in the Eastern Conference standings] and when playoff time comes, it will be a time for us to prove what we’re made of and how bad we want it.”

There’s a long way to go and a lot of improvement to make. But the Bulls are starting to feel that momentum building already. Jimmy Butler isn’t going to shoot 6-for-20 on most nights.

“We have a lot to look forward to,” Butler said. “If we keep stringing these wins with the people we have — when we get all our pieces back, we will be hard to beat.”