As the Chicago Bulls went to break down their team huddle prior to Tuesday night’s game against the Suns, a problem arose.
The man who had broken down the huddle with a “Bulls on three!” call the entire season, Luol Deng, was no longer there, having been traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for draft picks and salary cap relief earlier in the day.
But there was no awkward silence, and players didn’t look around to see who would step up and complete the huddle breakdown.
Jimmy Butler, the player who became close to Deng ever since he entered the NBA three seasons ago out of Marquette, took the South Sudan native’s spot in the huddle and broke the Bulls down before their eventual 92-87 win over Phoenix.
“It was weird,” Butler said laughing after the game. “I see how ‘Lu’ feels. New roles, new leaders have got to step up.”
Butler can’t completely replace the two-time All-Star Deng on the court like he did in the huddle, but he can become one of the leaders that keeps the Bulls, winners of six of eight, alive in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt.
Tuesday night he was everywhere. Though his shot wasn’t falling – he shot 4-for-18 – he filled the box score, racking up 13 points, five rebounds, three assists and four steals in the team’s third straight win.
He made his presence known early, shortly after breaking down the team huddle for the first time. In the first quarter – the first without Deng – he scored eight points and compiled two steals to both calm the Bulls down and maintain the Suns’ up-tempo pace.
“He guards many different positions, comes up with key steals at critical times, gets us into the open floor, makes hustle plays, chases plays down from behind,” head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Those are winning basketball plays. If you’re not shooting well, you’ve got to do other things to help us win games. And Jimmy, whether 9-for-10 or 4-for-18, he’s gonna play the same way. He’s gonna play hard.”
Though he went 0-for-8 in the second half from the field, he did his damage defensively, help limiting Gerald Green – 15 points – to 1-for-4 shooting in the fourth quarter, seeing time on multiple players while pacing a defense that allowed the Suns to shoot 40 percent and score 87 points, 16 points under their season average.
Butler spoke frequently in his first few years in the league about how much Deng had helped, and that the ribbing he received helped them form such a strong relationship. That’s what made watching Deng leave so emotional, he said, and why the phone call the two exchanged was so heartfelt.
“Lu’s more than just a basketball player, like we all are. So there was a lot of joking around,” Butler said of his phone call to Deng. “But then it was on a serious note, he told me he was going to miss me. And Lu’s never told me anything nice since I’ve been here.”
The Bulls will miss what Deng brought to the table, but they’re glad to still have Butler. In a newly expanded role – huddle breakdown included – Butler knows he’ll need to bring the same energy every play while also showing more aggressiveness – the same aggressiveness that made Deng such a special player in Chicago.
“Just to be extremely aggressive on both ends of the floor. Take shots to try to make shots, don’t get down on yourself if you miss,” Butler said of his adjustments.
And like Deng was to Butler, Butler said he’s also excited to see the progression rookie Tony Snell can make in a larger role. Snell played 21 minutes Tuesday night, scoring 12 points on 5-for-7 shooting and a pair of 3-pointers.
“I’m trying to tell Tony the same thing,” Butler said. “He played extremely well tonight. So don’t settle, just keep trying to get better.”
Thibodeau said Butler took good shots but simply had an off night where he made up for it by affecting the game in other ways. And one guarantee he was able to make was that Butler would be in the Berto Center tomorrow working on his shot, always looking to improve.
“He didn’t shoot a good percentage but I liked his shots,” he said. “The one thing I know, tomorrow he’ll be in the gym shooting and he’ll be confident in the next game making them.”
New roles and new leaders. Same old Jimmy.