MIAMI — One could say this is where it all changed for Jimmy Butler: American Airlines Arena, in last season’s second-round playoff series against the Heat, where the swingman, already becoming a household name in Chicago after emerging in the second half of the regular season, started to gain a national presence.
In that series, without Bulls’ usual ironman Luol Deng available due to complications of a spinal tap in the previous round of the postseason, Butler played three consecutive complete 48-minute games, while matched up defensively against Heat superstar LeBron James. While he didn’t shut down James, he fared relatively well, especially for a second-year player, and on offense, he held his own while mostly guarded by fellow Marquette product Dwyane Wade.
But that’s in the past now. Butler is a permanent starter, not just a fill-in, sharing a backcourt with Derrick Rose and heading into the Bulls’ regular-season opener Tuesday night against the Heat, he feels like he truly belongs.
“Super comfortable,” Butler described, when asked about how prepared he feels for the primetime affair. “I feel like that’s what all this work has been about this summer, just coming in ready. But you know I’ve got guys on my team telling me to play with confidence, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, so it makes it a lot easier to just play basketball and not worry about too many other things. Yeah, last year was last year. But this is a new year and I think with the group of guys that we have, this game is winnable.”
Deng, Butler’s on-court role model, added: “Jimmy started the second half of the year when I was hurt, and he’s done a good job of starting. I think he’s excited. We’re excited to have everybody healthy and have our first five in there.”
Because of his offensive capabilities—specifically, his athleticism and fearlessness driving to the basket, as well as a much-improved perimeter jumper—Butler ensures that every member of the Bulls’ starting lineup has to be accounted for. But it’s his defensive prowess that first earned him minutes under Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau and will continue to be his trademark.
Alongside Deng, an All-Star small forward known as one of the best defenders at his position in the league, the Bulls’ wings are one of the rare tandems that can at least make life difficult for James and Wade.
“What you have to do is try to make them work for their points. You don’t stop players like that. You have to guard them with your team. They’re very difficult to guard individually,” Thibodeau explained. “You have to have a multiple effort mentality. You have to get to a second and third and fourth effort to finish your defense. They push the ball up the floor. They share it. They make good decisions. You have to get back, get set and be ready.”
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Butler believes that the Bulls’ versatility on defense gives them more than a fighting chance against Miami, both Tuesday and beyond.
“It’s huge because you can switch a lot of things and then you can do a lot of different things on offense, using myself, Lu and Derrick, and I feel like on the defensive end, our first five, we can almost switch everything and then definitely when Taj comes into the game. That’s a lot of switchables and reads that just takes them out of their offense,” he said. “Ring night or not, we still want to win. We always want to win every game that we can. Especially to steal one on the road in Miami, that’s big. But I think as long as we do what we’re capable of doing—executing and play hard—I think we’re capable of winning this game.
“I know it’s going to be a dog fight like it always is.”