WICHITA, Kan.—On paper, Jimmy Butler’s return to the Bulls’ lineup after missing the team’s three previous games with a bruised left knee wasn’t bad at all.
The starting shooting guard scored 12 points in 32 minutes of action, shooting 4-for-6 from the field, including his only three-pointer attempted, as well as grabbing four rebounds and dishing out three assists Wednesday night. But Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau clearly wasn’t pleased with what he saw during the team’s 104-95 win over the Thunder at Intrust Bank Arena.
“A lot of rust. We have to try to shake that off. He hasn’t practiced. You can’t expect to play well if you’re not practicing,” the coach said. “Defensively, we weren’t very good. Free throws, he’s an excellent free throw shooter, so that will come around.”
Thibodeau’s recent focus on his players not practicing doesn’t relate solely to Butler, as the coach has trained his sights squarely on injured All-Star center Joakim Noah, who has only played in one preseason game, due to a lingering strained-groin injury.
“The conditioning is critical, so we’ll take it day-by-day,” Thibodeau said of Noah. “[Wednesday] is like the first day he could shoot a ball, and it’s basically all straight-ahead stuff. He’s completely de-conditioned, so we’re very concerned about that.
"The one thing I know about the NBA is when you practice well, you play well and you can’t say enough about how important practice is. So this is a team sport and you need everyone to practice."
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Veteran guard Kirk Hinrich, who suffered a concussion in last Friday’s win over the Pacers at the United Center, also remains sidelined.
As for Butler, Thibodeau didn’t play the swingman down the stretch against Oklahoma City, opting instead to use newcomer Mike Dunleavy, who scored nine points, including 2-for-3 shooting from three-point range, on the evening.
“Just the way it was going,” Thibodeau explained. “Wanted to see Dunleavy open up the floor. Just looking at matchups.”
For his part, Butler was simply pleased just to be back on the floor.
“It felt good to be back in the trenches with my guys. I’m glad we pulled out the win. It just makes me happy that I can play again,” he said, noting that he felt no soreness in his knee after the fact. "I feel like my conditioning’s up there. I feel like I’m not explosive like I normally would be, but that’s going to come with time, a little bit more treatment, but I’m still ready to go.”
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As a full-time starter for the first season, Butler's adjustment to the role has been eased by playing alongside Derrick Rose, who draws so much attention that the third-year Marquette product will see plenty of easy offensive opportunities.
"That’s easy. He passes the ball," Butler said of playing with the former league MVP. "If he can’t make something for himself, he’s hitting you. Boom, layup, or open three. That’s how he is. In half-court, it’s even easier. Spot up and get ready to knock down an open J."
Rose acknowledged Butler's offensive talent, but claimed that the Texas native will have to rely on what got him the job in the first place to make the impact that the Bulls need.
"Jimmy’s the type of guy where I think he’s still trying to find his game," the point guard explained. "He still has to shoot the ball, get comfortable enough to shoot the ball. But his game is on the defensive end. Of course he’s going to be a scorer, slasher, whatever. But we need him defensively, that consistent defense almost every game."