MINNEAPOLIS—Jimmy Butler was a surprise starter in Sunday night’s 104-97 win over the Timberwolves at the Target Center, but he was prepared.
Marco Belinelli—who himself is a fill-in starter because of veteran Rip Hamilton’s absence—missed the contest due to abdominal muscle strain, an injury he’s been playing through for some time now, something Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau neglected to inform the media before the game.
Afterwards, he provided some clarity.
“He’s been battling the abdominal muscle strain,” Thibodeau said. “Just couldn’t get going today.”
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“I was hopeful [Belinelli would play] this morning. We did the walk-through right before and I knew it wasn’t looking good,” he continued. “I don’t want to speculate right now. I’m hopeful that in a day or two, it’ll calm down and he’ll be okay, but he’s day-to-day.”
Either way, Butler showed that he was more than capable of being a temporary replacement at shooting guard, scoring 20 points, snatching nine rebounds and swiping three steals, as well as guarding a variety of players, from Minnesota starter Luke Ridnour, more of a point guard-type, to bigger forwards, such as Derrick Williams.
“He had to guard a small, he did a great job with his defense, posted, played hard, made hustle plays,” Thibodeau said of Butler’s play. “He was huge.”
All-Star teammate Luol Deng chimed in: “Guys stepped up. Didn’t know until this morning that Marco wasn’t playing. Jimmy did a great job of stepping in and filling in, and guys off the bench did a great job.”
Known for his defense even at this early stage of his career, Butler himself attributed his strong offensive performance to having more confidence.
“My teammates are constantly telling me to be aggressive, like, ‘You make that,’ or ‘We see you make that all the time in practice.’ It makes it so much easier. It’s like the crowd’s not there. It’s like it’s just us playing basketball,” he explained. “The more reps I get and of course, the more reps you get in a game, you get the hang of it because it’s different shooting with someone closing you out than just shooting 50 shots after practice. It’s so much more different. But I feel like the more confident I am to take that shot, the more I can make shot.”
Thibodeau classifies Butler as a small forward offensively, but acknowledges his defensive versatility, which is something Butler takes pride in.
“It’s all about just knowing your personnel, knowing who you guard,” he said. “Then just going out there and matching up.”
But the second-year swingman is also becoming more adept at creating off the dribble, adding to his improved ability to knock down open jumpers and the knack he possessed coming out of Marquette—his locker-room trumpeting of his alma mater’s NCAA Tournament early-round close wins has been insufferable to teammates and media alike—for drawing fouls. He’s hopeful that as time goes on, he can become more of a playmaker.
“Definitely, especially as I continue to knock down open shots. Hopefully they’ve got to close out on me a little harder,” Butler said. “That’s what I really like to do, attack the rim, get to the line. But more than that, make the open play for the next guy on my team.”