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Jimmy Butler scores 25 as Bulls fend off Bucks 102-98

Jimmy Butler scrambles for a loose ball in the Bulls' 102-98 victory over the Bucks on Sunday night in Milwaukee.

MILWAUKEE — Desperation is bringing out the best in Jimmy Butler. And it’s trickling down to the rest of the Bulls.

With Butler in command and their playoff hopes a long shot, the Bulls suddenly have developed a finishing touch. After losing most of a 16-point halftime lead, they fended of the Milwaukee Bucks in the fourth quarter for a critical 102-98 victory Sunday night at the Bradley Center — their third consecutive road victory.

Butler led the way with 25 points on 10-of-11 shooting and eight assists as the Bulls (39-38), playing without injured starters Derrick Rose (elbow) and Taj Gibson (fractured ribs), remained two games behind the Indiana Pacers (41-36) — who beat the Knicks 92-87 on Sunday night — for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

The Bulls, who led 55-36 in the first half and saw their 57-41 halftime lead cut to one point three times in the fourth quarter, have lost games like this several times this season. But not this time. Butler held Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo scoreless for 9:45 in the fourth quarter and scored six points and assisted on a huge jumper by Justin Holiday in the final four minutes to stop the Bucks’ momentum.

“I think it’s [because] our backs are against the wall,” Butler said. “[Because] we have to win every game, play every possession like it’s the last one. I think we’re doing that extremely well when we put ourselves in great positions to win these games.”

Antetokounmpo (34 points on 14-0f-22 shooting, nine assists) was nearly unstoppable driving the lane and had 31 points after scoring on a finger-roll to cut the Bulls’ lead to 83-79 with 9:55 left. At that point it appeared Antetokounmpo would carry the Bucks to victory with the Bulls reeling. But Antetokounmpo did not score again until a too-late three-pointer made it 100-96 with 10 seconds to play.

“Giannis was unbelievable tonight. We had to get Jimmy on him,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Started [with] Jimmy on [Damien] Inglis [who did not score in nine minutes]. He had some energy down the stretch to guard Giannis. He did a good job going straight up — good help and then we rebounded the ball, which is huge against this team.”

Butler had just enough help. Pau Gasol scored 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting and added eight rebounds and eight assists. Nikola Mirotic added 19 points on 6-of-15 shooting.

Others made smaller, but key contributions. When the Bucks cut the Bulls lead to 83-82 with 9:15 left in the fourth quarter, Aaron Brooks scored on a drive. At 85-84, E’Twaun Moore scored off a pass from Gasol. Finally, at 87-86 with four minutes left, Butler drove the baseline for a dunk and,  after a Bucks turnover, scored on another drive for a 91-86 lead with 3:14 to go.

In the final two minutes, Mirotic scored off a feed from Gasol, Holiday hit a jumper off a pass from Butler to beat the shot clock and Butler nailed a 17-footer form the elbow to give the Bulls a 97-93 lead. Free throws did the rest.

“We just outscored them,” Butler said. “I don’t think we guarded the way we’ve been guarding. But when you make shots, it makes up for that sometimes. I don’t think we can rely on that, but I think tonight that did it for us.”

Whether the Bulls can parlay this victory into a big finish remains to be seen. The Bulls play road games against the Grizzlies on Tuesday and the Heat on Thursday before playing the Cavaliers at home on Saturday.

“I’m just happy to win and stay in this playoff race,” Butler said. “If we continue to win, hopefully we’ll find ourselves [in the playoffs].”