For second-year Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler, Tuesday's home win over Orlando was a watershed moment in his young NBA career. No, he didn't put up huge numbers or make a highlight-reel play--though he, along with fellow reserves Taj Gibson and Nate Robinson, are the most likely players on the team's roster to do that--but he played the entire fourth quarter of the close-knit affair, showing that he's taken a major step in earning Tom Thibodeau's trust as a key rotation player.
"He did a great job for us," the Bulls head coach said after Wednesday's practice at the Berto Center. "He's been playing better and better, stays ready and he can guard multiple positions. He plays hard all the time."
Butler is virtually the prototype of what every coach wants a young player to be--hungry for minutes, but doesn't complain, understands his role, competes on both ends when he's on the floor, possesses a strong work ethic--but mainly playing behind All-Star small forward Luol Deng, playing time can be hard to come by. That's why he understands that his performance against the Magic was significant for his immediate future, as well as that of the team as a whole.
"It builds my confidence. It builds my teammates' confidence in me, so I feel great when I'm in there at the end of the game, no matter how many minutes I may play," the Tomball, Texas (a suburb of Houston) native said Wednesday, later adding his far-fetched prediction--Texans 120, Bears 3--for Sunday's matchup between the two NFL juggernauts. "It has been tough to have to wait for playing time, but you have to wait for everything. I feel like nothing's given to you. I've been waiting all my life for the most part, so whenever the opportunity's there, you've got to capitalize on it.
"My job is to go in and shut down whoever--or attempt to shut down whoever--they assign me to court and crash the offensive boards, be an energy guy and make an open shot when it's needed," the Marquette product continued. "I feel like I work hard enough to where I can battle day in and day out with anybody. I've got great teammates, so I see their work ethic. So, it makes me want to get in and do the same thing. Lu's constantly bringing me in the gym to shoot extra with him, so I feel like the more work I put in to it, the more ready I'll be.
"Tuesday's win was really big and I think it was a big step for our team, as well, knowing that we can go that far into our bench and be able to close out a game like that--high energy, getting stops, making shots--it was huge."
While Butler must continue to improve his ballhandling and consistency on his outside jumper, his athleticism, defensive prowess and versatility--Thibodeau utilized him defensively at shooting guard, next to Deng on the wing, against Orlando--offers the Bulls a different dimension. Butler is already a superior defender, if not offensive player, to shooting guards Rip Hamilton and backup Marco Belinelli, so if the team can sacrifice some shooting, the former Big East star can bring his size to the table, an effective deterrent to the league's many talented perimeter players.
Thibodeau finished Tuesday's contest with a lineup featuring Butler, Gibson and Robinson alongside starters Deng and Joakim Noah. To the coach, his closers are in a meritocracy, where their play and matchups determine who's on the floor at the end of a tight game.
Deng, whether he's scoring prolifically or simply playing his typically sticky defense, is a given to be on the court, especially since he rarely exits games anyway, while Noah, in much better early-season shape than last season's lockout-truncated campaign, is also a good bet with former understudy Omer Asik now in Houston.
"Deng is great. You need scoring, he gives you scoring. You need great defense, he can guard anyone on the floor. He gives you that. He plays to win. He doesn't play to get numbers, so if he win and he scores 10, he's happy. If we win and he scores 25, he's happy. Whatever you need, he just plays for the team. That's what makes him so valuable and he can score so many different ways. He's such a complete player, he's unselfish. Whenever he's double-teamed, he hits the open man. He's constantly moving without the ball. He makes your team better in a lot of different ways," Thibodeau said, before moving on to Noah--with whom he wasn't pleased with for shooting a last-second three-pointer in an attempt to win Big Macs for the United Center crowd; Thibodeau wouldn't divulge what was said between the two--and slightly bristling at the notion that the center wouldn't be able to handle the increased workload he's seen in the early going throughout the course of the season. "Noah has been around now. I think he understands how to play. His body position has improved dramatically. He has the ability to think ahead, he knows what's coming. I think he's developed more of a multiple-effort mentality, the ability to go from one thing to the next, to the next very quickly. So, I think that's what's helped him the most."
If defense is a priority or Gibson is playing well, the recently-extended reserve will see the bulk of the fourth-quarter minutes, but if scoring is needed, starting power forward Carlos Boozer is likely to be used as a primary scoring option and facilitator, due to his offensive prowess and the fact that he remains an adept rebounder. In the backcourt, Thibodeau has options. During Hamilton's tenure in Chicago thus far, his minutes in the final stanza have been somewhat spotty, but he should be counted on more this season, while Belinelli provides more of a pure long-distance threat and Butler brings his aforementioned defensive mindset.
Another option at guard is using floor generals Robinson and starter Kirk Hinrich together, although that's only been seen in small doses early this season. Thibodeau downplayed the fact that Robinson has closed out half of the Bulls' four games this season.
"Depending on what we need, whether we need more scoring or more defense, who's going well. But I think Kirk has played well. His size and his ability to defend is critical. Nate can break people down off the dribble, so their strengths are different. But we need them both. You may see them both out there together," he explained. "Just seeing how it unfolds. We've always finished with different people. Each night, someone's got a hot hand going. We're going to try to milk that and again, a lot depends on what's going on out there on the floor.
"I have an idea of how I want to finish, but you don't know how the game is unfolding. You don't know the personnel that they have on the floor. The thing that I do like about our team is we have a lot of versatility. We have guys that can defend and play multiple positions, so I think that's a plus and we're going to use whatever it is to our advantage," Thibodeau added. "That's why you're a team. You have to put the team first, everyone has to sacrifice and you have to recognize if someone's going well, maybe it's better for the team if they finish. We're always going to do what's best for the team first."