Two months ago Jimmy Butler was quick to denounce the nickname “Kobe stopper” after holding the Lakers’ star to 16 points in a Jan. 21 win. But after another impressive performance in a start against a second perennial All-Star and future Hall-of-Famer, it’s evident the second-year pro is worthy of the praise he received after last night’s 101-97 win over the Miami Heat.
Butler, starting for the second consecutive night in place of Marco Belinelli (abdominal strain), played 43 minutes of lockdown defense, added 17 points and five assists and got the United Center crowd on their feet following an alley-oop dunk over Chris Bosh midway through the third quarter.
“He’s got a great demeanor, just gets out there and competes, and that’s huge,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Doesn’t take any plays off. If he makes a mistake, he’s playing so hard he can overcome it. But he brings energy. You don’t have to wind him up. He’ll have great energy every day.”
Butler has never been one to lack for motivation, but with the Bulls down Belinelli and Joakim Noah (foot), and a chance to end Miami’s historic 27-game win streak, it was Butler who jumpstarted the Bulls’ hot start on both ends of the floor.
He limited Wade—who returned from a two-game absence after resting a sore knee—to just seven first half points on 3-of-5 shooting and three turnovers, helping the Bulls to a 55-46 lead at intermission. Butler also added nine points and three assists of his own.
“My teammates let me know what I can become in this league,” Butler said. “They’re constantly telling me advice. I’m not great at everything on the court, so they’re always on my side…that’s the biggest part to me. They’re always in my corner.”
One of those teammates, Luol Deng, was also on the giving end of Butler’s biggest play of the night.
The Heat had began the third quarter on a 15-7 run to cut the nine-point halftime to one, and the general feeling inside the United Center was that they—winners of 27 straight games—were ready to blow the game in the exact fashion they had done throughout the streak.
But that all changed following a LeBron James air-ball. Carlos Boozer corralled the missed shot, found a streaking Deng who then floated an alley-oop to Butler, who got just enough of a handle on the pass to slam home a one-handed dunk over an unsuspecting Bosh.
It stopped the Miami run, forced Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to call a timeout and became what Butler called the “momentum-shifter” in the Bulls favor.
It was exactly what Butler described it as—the Heat led just one more time, 68-66, in the game after the slam—but it was also another eye-opening play from the former first-round draft pick that has everyone excited about his future in Chicago.
Wednesday night was Butler’s eighth start this year, and he once again proved he’s capable of playing and producing in an expanded role. In those eight starts, Butler has averaged 15.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in a workhorse-like 44.9 minutes per game.
“You get more reps, for one and you definitely gain confidence, knowing that Coach has that trust in you, your teammates have that trust in you to play big minutes and be aggressive on both ends of the floor, so it’s a building block,” Butler said of his start. “So, whenever I do return to the bench, then it’s coming back to the bench with that same mentality.
“I guess it’s easy because when I look across this locker room and I see Lu, I know what he goes through each and every night…’I’ve done this, what, four, five, six times?’ He does it 82 times, so I can’t complain. If he doesn’t complain, I have no reason to complain.”
Butler, the mentee, has soaked in knowledge from Deng, who scored 28 points on Wednesday, but the mentor has been just as complimentary of the young, rising star.
“Jimmy can play, man. I think he’s just got to stay focused and stay working,” Deng said. “He’s been working so hard all summer and throughout the year.”
[RELATED: Deng holds his own in matchup with James]
Deng also said Butler’s work with assistant Adrian Griffin, a nine-year NBA veteran—including one with Deng—has been one of the more underrated factors in Butler’s development.
“(Griffin) wasn’t in the NBA because of how talented he was,” Deng said. “He really overachieved and he’s trying to pass that work ethic to us, and we do a good job of listening to him throughout the game and also working out with him at night.”
Having Griffin, the two-time All-Star Deng and the trust of Thibodeau in his arsenal has propelled Butler into succeeding into whatever role the Bulls need him to play. Wednesday night it was locking down Wade and adding a scoring punch with Belinelli out, and it ended in the Bulls’ biggest win of the year.