SACRAMENTO — As Jimmy Butler walked gingerly to the Houston Rockets’ training room with longtime Rockets trainer Keith Jones last Friday night, Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg sat in his office in the locker room and called Michael Carter-Williams into it.
Within a couple minutes, Carter-Williams’ face lit up. Carter-Williams was back in the rotation as Butler’s right toe contusion put him out and the Bulls’ third-year guard was back with another chance to definitively be back in the land of the living.
And thus, the Bulls’ game of point guard musical chairs has taken a new beat with Carter-Williams putting together his best stretch of back-to-back games since being acquired late in the preseason.
Scoring 23 that night while gamely defending James Harden — fouling out when Harden literally jumped on his back in overtime — and following it up with 21 against Sacramento solidified himself as someone capable of minutes, no matter who’s on the floor.
But it’s taken plenty of time to get to this point, if he’s fully in the stage of some real consistency. Being a restricted free agent after the season, the uncertainty of not playing for a stretch would get to anybody looking to secure his future.
“It only naturally can. I can only control what I can control,” Carter-Williams told CSNChicago.com in Houston after the Bulls’ narrow loss. “The guys tell me, control what you can control and when you get your opportunity, try to take advantage of it the best you can. Of course it gets frustrating sometimes. I know I'm being watched all the time. It's 30 teams in this league. All it takes is one team to like me.”
If he keeps playing with the aggressiveness and zeal that he’s displayed recently, one would think he wouldn’t be going anywhere. Slashing to the basket for scores, defending, hedging and helping, he’s playing more far more confidence in the two-game sample size than he did in his first 18 games or so after coming back from an early injury.
He was inserted as a starter when Hoiberg was fed up with Rajon Rondo and the lack of fit in the first unit, so it wasn’t exactly a move of merit with Carter-Williams’ play; He was just the next man up.
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So when Carter-Williams’ flaws began to hurt the Bulls — flaws that never disappeared — being yanked from the starting lineup for Jerian Grant in the next game of musical chairs seemed to leave him confused.
And it wasn’t just that he was yanked out of the lineup, he stopped playing completely and without a clear enough explanation.
He was asked if clarity was too much to ask for.
“It's not too much to ask at all,” Carter-Williams said. “It's not that me and Fred don't speak. We talk often. Fred tells me what he thinks in different situations. Some things I disagree with, some things I agree with. But at the end of the day, I respect him and what he says and I'm in this for the team.”
Whether he received an explanation to his satisfaction doesn’t matter. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be the first player to drive himself crazy over a coach’s decision but it would cost him plenty in a number of ways.
“It's not the first time it's happened,” Carter-Williams said. “In college, I didn't play my whole freshman year (at Syracuse). The thing I'm still learning and gotta learn is to not understand why. Just let it go. If you keep trying to understanding why, you'll drive yourself crazy.”
“If you keep searching for that answer, if you keep thinking about it and not focus in on the right things, It can play with your head a little bit.”
Now he’s put the onus back on Hoiberg to figure out a way to keep Carter-Williams playing aggressively when Butler returns, and he’ll have to balance Carter-Williams, Grant and Rondo’s minutes as the game of musical chairs rages on to the All-Star break.
“I wanna be as good as we can be,” Carter-Williams said. “I wanna be in the playoffs. I wanna experience winning and (Hoiberg)’s not doing things to lose. Whatever he's doing, he's believes we can win the best that way. Just gotta trust him.”