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Jimmy Butler embraces the challenge of increased playing time

Bulls forward Jimmy Butler shoots over Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony first period Chicago Bulls-New York Knicks NBA game Thursday April

Bulls forward Jimmy Butler shoots over Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony in the first period of the Chicago Bulls-New York Knicks NBA game Thursday April 11, 2013 at the United Center. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 13, 2013 6:43AM

Fresh off playing all 48 minutes in a loss to Toronto on Tuesday, Jimmy Butler continued to be groomed on Thursday to follow in the footsteps of Luol Deng.

Even with Deng back in the starting lineup after missing two games with a sore right hip, Butler started again, taking turns with Deng in guarding New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony. Add Anthony to the list of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade that Butler has locked up with defensively, as the second-year player continues to develop before everyone’s eyes.

“He’s been huge for us all year long,’’ veteran point guard Kirk Hinrich said. “Every time we’ve needed him to step up for us he has, and he’s really come a long way.’’

With Deng, Marco Belinelli and Rip Hamilton each coming off injuries and on a minutes watch, expect Butler to continue to get a high volume of playing time going into next week’s playoffs. He might play the same workhorse minutes Deng has taken on under coach Tom Thibodeau.

“I feel like that’s an excuse,’’ Butler said when asked about having too many minutes thrown his way. “I rely on the energy that I give off and the energy that my teammates give me. That’s what carries me through all these games.’’

Getting closer

Joakim Noah (right foot plantar fasciitis), Taj Gibson (left MCL) and Derrick Rose (left knee) all missed the game against the Knicks, but Noah and Gibson continued to show progress in the Thursday shootaround.

Gibson could play on this upcoming three-game road trip, but Noah, fresh off a cortisone shot, remains an unknown. He could be back this weekend or possibly not until the playoffs start.

“If [Noah is] injured we don’t want him out there, but if he can play we certainly would want him to play before the start of the playoffs,” Thibodeau said. “But if that’s not the case, that’s not the case.”

East vs. West

Thibodeau wasn’t necessarily buying the idea that the Western Conference is much more dominant than the Eastern Conference.

“Miami, last time I checked they were from the East,’’ Thibodeau said. “The West has some great teams. There are great teams in the East. The good thing about the playoffs is it’s all decided on the court.’’

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