After shutting down or at least limiting the likes of Heat superstar LeBron James, the reigning league MVP, and Rockets All-Star shooting guard James Harden, arguably the best player at the position, during the Bulls’ six-game home stand, Jimmy Butler was faced with the prospect of defending Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, the best pure scorer in the game.
Durant lived up to that billing in Monday night’ 97-85 Thunder win at the United Center, leaving Butler and the Bulls with a sour taste in their mouths before hitting the road again. With All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook back in the lineup to deflect some of the defensive focus, Durant went for a game-high 35 points on efficient 11-for-21 shooting, making it his 32nd consecutive game of at least 25 points, second only to Michael Jordan’s record from the 1986-87 season.
Butler did his best to make Durant work for each and every one of those, but the swingman with the burgeoning reputation as a defensive stopper couldn’t shut down the MVP candidate.
“He’s a terrific scorer. He can score in multiple amount of ways. He’s a tough cover,” Butler explained. “Just trying to make everything difficult for him. Try not to make him get a lot of easy baskets. Contest everything. He made shots tonight.
“Difficult. Tough. But that’s what I asked for. He played a great game. I did what I could,” he went on to say. “Really aggressive on offense, can score in a variety of ways. He scores. That’s what he does. You just have to give him props for that.”
It’s a team game, so Butler can’t be blamed for giving up all of those points, despite being the primary defender on Durant. Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau explained that while Durant was Butler’s defensive assignment, the team as a whole was responsible for trying to contain him.
“Durant, he’s tough to guard. You’re not guarding him individually. You’ve got to guard him with the team,” the coach said. “I thought Jimmy made him work and that’s the great value in Jimmy. He never gets discouraged. He’s going to keep battling and there’s a lot of ground he’s got to cover. We were cross-matched because of what they were doing with Durant on Taj, so you’ve got to get back to him quickly and Jimmy’s tough. He’s tough.”
Bulls’ All-Star center Joakim Noah concurred: “When you play a guy like him, it’s not on one person. It’s on everybody overall. When you get him shooting those one-leg shots and he’s hitting, you have to give credit. I feel we had a few mental mistakes today that could’ve cost us the game. We didn’t hit shots. But overall, you have to give credit where credit is due. He’s a great player.”
[GIBSON: It just didn't go our way]
While most games won’t pose a challenge like guarding the likes of Durant, James or Harden, Butler understands that with the departure of Luol Deng, the role of defending every primary wing scorer the Bulls face will fall to him. Thus, similar to his predecessor, postgame and off-day recovery is a major emphasis for him.
“A lot of ice, cold tub, massage, all of that good stuff,” Butler said. “It’s all right, man. I’m keeping up, that’s for sure.”
But as Bulls’ sixth man Taj Gibson said, there’s pretty much no break in sight for Butler, fourth in the league in steals per game.
“What can we do? We don’t have Luol here to try to give him a break from time to time. He has to do everything and that’s we’re asking for as a team,” Gibson explained. “That’s what everybody’s sacrificing right now. We’ve got a lot of guys hurt. There’s no excuses. We’ve got to find a way. Eat right, do whatever you can to try to make those baskets and play great defense.”