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Butler powers Bulls past Knicks

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CHICAGO — Jimmy Butler’s words agree with Charles Barkley’s assessment that he’s merely a good role player. His play this season has proven both of them wrong.

Aided by increased playing time and responsibility, Butler is becoming a star this season. He showed it showed again Thursday at the United Center in the Chicago Bulls’ 103-97 win against the New York Knicks.

Butler, the Bulls’ leading scorer, poured in a career-high 35 points and dished out seven assists. He also shot 11-for-21 from the floor (4-for-7 on 3-pointers), hit nine of 10 free throws and contributed in five statistical categories.

“All I can say is, ‘Thank god for Jimmy Butler,'” Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau said. “You can’t say enough about him. He is just having a phenomenal year.”

Barkley, the star-turned-analyst for TNT, had plenty to say about Butler during the TV broadcast. He and fellow analyst Reggie Miller debated Butler’s merits for much of the game.

Barkley argued Butler wasn’t the kind of star player who could demand a maximum contract in his pending free agency next summer. Miller said Butler is a star in the making.

Despite leading the Bulls to their seventh straight win against the Knicks in the Windy City, the ever-humble Butler said words afterward that agreed with Barkley.

“I don’t want to be a ‘star,'” he said. “I just want to be a decent role player on a really good team.”

He’s certainly that, but appears to be growing into much more. Butler consistently picks up the slack left behind on nights star Derrick Rose can’t play, and this was another one of those nights. Rose sat out with an unspecified illness and Butler took control.

He scored 17 points in the first half, 18 in the second half and seven in the fourth quarter, when the Knicks fought hard not to lose their third game in a row and 13th in the past 14.

Combined with reserve guard Aaron Brooks (18 points) and reserve rookie forward Nikola Mirotic (13 points), Butler spearheaded a winning effort in the fourth. It included a 12-0 run during an early two-minute span to re-capture a lost lead.

“(Butler’s) playing extremely well,” said Chicago forward Pau Gasol, who scored 20 points and grabbed seven rebounds. “He has a lot of confidence with a lot of aggressiveness. He’s asserting himself every single game (at) both ends of the floor. It’s not easy to do, but he’s been outstanding and I’m just proud of him.”

Knicks star forward Carmelo Anthony, who shunned Chicago’s free-agent pursuit this past summer, also missed the game. He sat out because of lingering soreness in his left knee in his first return trip to the United Center since the Bulls courted him there on a recruiting visit.

Minus some star power, the game seemed to lack some energy, on the floor and in the stands. The Knicks used it to their advantage. Despite falling behind 30-20 after one quarter, New York fought back in the second frame and continued chipping away in the third.

Led by guard Tim Hardaway Jr. (23 points) and forward Amar’e Stoudemire (16 points), the Knicks took a 74-73 lead into the fourth. Forward Pablo Prigioni hit a jumper to give New York a 77-75 lead with 10:31 left in the game, but the Bulls surged back in front 87-77 with that 12-0 run.

The Knicks countered with a 14-6 run of their own to make it close, but Chicago sealed it with seven points by Brooks in the final four minutes.

“As one of the most physical teams in the league, they are tough,” Knicks guard Jose Calderon (12 points) said. “We didn’t make our shots at the end, but it goes both ways with a lot of guys being out. The effort was there. We played good ball, but we couldn’t finish.”

Center Cole Aldrich added 13 points for New York, which had 10 players score points. The Knicks have lost 13 of their past 14 games and are off to the worst start in franchise history.

“I’m proud of that effort,” New York coach Derek Fisher said. “We played to win tonight. You have to do that every night, no matter who is in uniform. We can build on that great effort.”

NOTES: Bulls PG Derrick Rose was sick and missed his ninth game of the season. He didn’t travel with the team to Memphis after the game and is questionable for Friday’s game. … Knicks F Carmelo Anthony didn’t play Thursday because of lingering soreness in his left knee that’s bothered him since the second game of the season. … Chicago also played without F Taj Gibson (ankle) and rookie F Doug McDermott (right knee). … Bulls C/F Joakim Noah (right ankle) started after missing the previous four games and grabbed 13 rebounds. … Knicks F/C Amar’e Stoudemire was expected to miss the game for a recovery day, but was a surprise starter. … New York also played without G Iman Shumpert (dislocated left shoulder), F/C Andrea Bargnani (right calf), F Cleanthony Early (right knee) and guard J.R. Smith (plantar fascia), who didn’t make the trip.

Up to the minute news and reports from the news wire of The Sports Xchange.

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