NEW YORK -- What a difference a year makes.
At this juncture of the season last year -- not the same point in the actual calendar, but the first round of the NBA playoffs, due to the lockout-affected schedule -- Jimmy Butler was an afterthought.
Buried on the bench behind the likes of starters Rip Hamilton and All-Star Luol Deng, as well as departed veteran reserves Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer, the then-rookie wasn’t even an option in the Bulls’ deep and experienced wing rotation.
Fast forward a year, however, and not only is Butler a factor, but the team’s starting shooting guard and now has his first meaningful postseason action under his belt.
“Yeah, I got the jitters out of the way about when halftime came around. At first, it was kind of nerve-wracking, everybody saying it was a different kind of basketball,” said the second-year swingman, who acquitted himself well in his playoff debut with 13 points. “Then, I just thought to myself, ‘You’ve been doing this for so long, great teammates and they’ve got your back,’ so that made it real easy to come out in the second half and just play basketball.”
Since the Bulls ultimately lost, 106-89, in Saturday night’s Game 1, Butler isn’t close to satisfied, and heading into Monday’s Game 2, he plans to use the film of what he described as a “brutal” defeat as motivation.
“[The film of the game] was probably worse than it felt [Saturday] to tell you the truth. It was bad. I mean to watch, and we’re supposed to be a defensive team, and we can’t even get in the right position on the ball, help-side [defense] was terrible,” he said.
“[Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau] didn’t have to point it out because it was so obvious. Of course he did, but we knew. We knew that a lot of the points they put up in the first half you could tell that we weren’t playing any sort of defense. You dig yourself a hole like that in the first game of the playoffs. Hell, I knew we were in trouble and I had hardly ever played in the playoffs before. So I knew it was going to be hard to come back from.
“Watching that, it’s more motivation as far as I’m concerned. I mean it’s the playoffs, so you are motivated to a high level. But you don’t ever want to get your ass kicked on national TV, not to even mention in a playoff game. I feel like that gives us that willpower to do what we know,” Butler went on to say.
“We came here to do one thing, and that was to get a game, play extremely hard. People can say that [Brooklyn] is the underdog, but in reality we know we are the underdog, and that’s fine. We’ll go into every matchup as the underdog so we can prove everybody wrong. We know what we have to do, that’s obvious. We just have to go out there and do it now come Monday.”
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Butler’s emergence for the Bulls over the course of the campaign was one of the bright spots in the regular season, as his role has evolved from simply being a defensive specialist into a reliable offensive option.
While Butler must maintain his aggressiveness as a scorer, his defensive chops will be tested by having to guard Nets shooting guard Joe Johnson, one of the league’s most versatile scoring threats.
“Oh, yeah. Hell of a challenge. He does everything well,” Butler explained. “Shoot it, take it to the basket, post up, get to the line. You’ve just got to make everything difficult for him and play him within the game.”
Still, he must make sure that he fits into the team’s defensive scheme and not focus entirely on Johnson, so as to prevent the Bulls’ help-side defense from breaking down, an issue for the whole squad Saturday.
“I’m just happy for it, to tell you the truth. But just it being a playoff game and a playoff setting, an away game at that, it’s going to be tough. But that’s what you live for, to have fun and play on the road,” the second-year swingman said. “It’s a big honor. I feel like I’ve come a long way. I’ve worked extremely hard, both the offseason and through this season. But I feel like if I was starting or if I was coming off the bench, I would still have to play my role.”
“Overall, I didn’t like our team’s readiness, so it’s got to be a lot better,” Thibodeau said of the team. “I think Jimmy’s capable of playing great defense and not only great individual defense, but team defense and that’s something I think he can do better.”
But Thibodeau has been happy with the progress of Butler, who many observers view as the team’s shooting guard of the future.
“Just great. He has gotten better from last summer to where he is now because of the commitment that he’s made to improve. He’s got a great work ethic, great demeanor. I don’t see any reason why he won’t continue to improve. He’s done a fantastic job all year. He’s guarded multiple positions, one through four. Shorthanded and he’s playing the four on offense and the two on defense. You can’t say enough about him,” he gushed.
“He’s done a great job all year for us. He’s earned it. He’s show that he continues to improve. He can play multiple positions. He has great versatility. He has a great demeanor, doesn’t get rattled, so he’s shown great growth all year and I don’t see any reason why he won’t continue to improve because of the way he approaches things.”
In turn, Butler’s self-assuredness has skyrocketed, as the hard-to-please coach’s trust isn’t easy to earn.
“It’s up there because the more reps I get, the more comfortable I get and the more I feel like I belong. I feel like all the work I’ve been doing is paying off and Coach sees it on the court. And it’s not time for me to stop working, don’t get me wrong - so there’s always room for improvement. So I’ve got a lot better to get,” he explained.
“Just showing him that you’re in here. I feel like if he sees you working and on top of that, how hard you play, each and every possession. If you play 20 seconds or if you play five minutes or if you play 20 minutes, don’t take any of that time for granted and give it your all, each and every possession.”