Nicolas Batum is finally healthy, and that can spell bad news for a Chicago Bulls team missing its most important player.
Batum looks to exploit the absence of Jimmy Butler and continue giving Chicago fits as the Charlotte Hornets host the Bulls on Monday night.
Batum, who is second on the team in scoring at 14.9 points per game, has missed eight of Charlotte's last 19 games with a sprained right toe, and the Hornets (25-26) have split those contests. The 6-foot-8 guard, however, has found a comfort level of sorts the last two games and finished one assist shy of a triple-double versus Washington on Saturday, totaling 26 points and 11 rebounds in a 108-104 victory.
"I wasn't myself for the last four weeks, so I've been trying to get back to where I was before the toe injury,'' Batum said. "I want to get back to the way I played the first 30 games. The past two or three games, I've been feeling much better."
Batum averaged 16.3 points in the first 30 games he played, hitting 36.2 percent of his 3-point shots. He's been a handful for the Bulls, averaging 23.3 points and 9.0 rebounds while making 10 of 14 shots from beyond the arc and connecting at a 50.0 percent clip overall in helping Charlotte win two of three.
He had 24 points and hit two key 3-pointers down the stretch in the most recent meeting, a 102-96 victory at Chicago on Dec. 5. While Batum has done substantial damage from outside offensively, he has also utilized his height defensively in this series, pulling down 24 of his 27 rebounds at that end. That's not surprising considering he has a success rate of 64.6 percent on rebounding opportunities and a 76.4 percent adjusted rate on caroms within 3 1/2 feet of him.
Batum might have free reign Monday since the Bulls (27-23) will again be without Butler - the All-Star guard who is averaging a team-high 22.4 points to go with 5.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game - as he nurses a strained left knee. He was sorely missed down the stretch Saturday at Minnesota, where the Timberwolves closed the game on a 12-0 run in the final 2:55 to deal the Bulls a 112-105 defeat.
Butler's absence loomed large as Andrew Wiggins had six of those points in the final 1:24. The 6-8 Wiggins backed down the 6-3 Derrick Rose for a turnaround jumper in the post, spun free from Rose in the paint for layup and lost him on a screen before hitting a mid-range jumper.
"They went to Wiggins. We had a smaller guy on him,'' Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "Obviously Jimmy is missed in those types of situations, guarding a bigger wing like that.''
It's easy to envision either Rose or the 6-4 E'Twaun Moore having the same type of struggles with Batum, who scores 9.2 of his points per game in either catch-and-shoot situations or on pull-ups. While Moore did have 17 points and seven assists, the Bulls were also outscored by 11 points when he was on the floor.
Hornets swingman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has averaged 12.2 points on 53.5 percent shooting in five games since missing the first 46 due to shoulder surgery.
Rose has picked up the scoring slack with Butler sidelined, averaging 19.5 points and 9.5 assists in the two games his backcourt partner has missed.