WASHINGTON—What a turn of events for Jimmy Butler.
After playing all 53 minutes of the Bulls’ Game 2 overtime loss—shooting 2-for-9 from the field and getting torched by Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal in the process—and getting off to a slow start Friday night at the Verizon Center, the third-year swingman turned an ugly incident into fuel for his remarkable play down the stretch of an eventual 100-97 Game 3 win.
Butler was involved in a fourth-quarter incident with Washington big man Nene when the two players bumped heads, literally, with 8:28 remaining in the final stanza. What at first appeared to be an intense faceoff and muttered expletives quickly escalated into Nene putting his hands on Butler’s head and neck, ensuing in his ejection and a technical on his fellow combatant.
“Just two people wanting to win a game, competing. I guess he gave me one of those and I didn’t like it. It is what it is,” was how Butler described the incident, clearly downplaying it. “I didn’t think it was that serious, but obviously he thought it was. I was just saying, ‘Watch all that. It’s uncalled for.’ But I’m not mad at him. He’s a competitor. I respect the guy.”
There is speculation that Nene could be suspended for Sunday’s Game 4, not to mention Wizards center Marcin Gortat, who left the bench, though there was a timeout called on the play. Regardless of what happens, the intensity of the pair—neither Nene nor Butler is known for being a fighter, but both players are respected as legitimate tough customers—summed up the physical nature of the series.
“It is. But I knew I had to,” Butler said of keeping his composure. “I didn’t want to get ejected like he did, nothing like that. I can’t back down from anybody. That’s just not in me.”
Other observers, though perhaps not the most impartial, had varied opinions of the skirmish.
“Well, I just thought they got tangled up and obviously, they get a chance to look at it,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “So I haven’t seen the replay yet, but I’m sure they got it right and I thought Jimmy showed a lot of poise after that, to play with discipline, make big shots and he did a great job playing defense and helping us execute.”
All-Star center Joakim Noah, who played peacemaker, echoed his coach’s sentiments: “Emotions are riding high. Just got to keep your composure. I’m not the one to talk. I’ve been in those situations, but it definitely was a bonus to have him out of the game.”
Mike Dunleavy, on the other hand, pulled no punches, so to speak.
“It looked like an MMA move to me. It was one of those headlocks,” he half-joked. “It was great that Jimmy kept his cool. I think a lot of people put in that situation would have started throwing blows. But Jimmy hung in there and obviously losing him probably hurt their team, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Bulls sixth man Taj Gibson, saw it from a historical standpoint: “It was a scuffle. Guys were just going for the rebound and it’s a physical series. Even [Bulls executive vice president] John Paxson—Pax played in the era where fouls were hard and there weren’t really flagrant-twos. But now it’s chippy, guys are getting frustrated and it was a little tangle-up. But like I said before, you just can’t put your hands on players. You’ve got to learn to walk away.”
After Nene’s ejection, the game swung in the direction of the Bulls.
“I think it was a turning point,” Noah said. “Nene is a big part of what they do. Him not being on the court was big for us.”
Butler played 40 minutes Friday, still a hefty total, but nothing like his Game 2 workload, which contributed to his 15-point night, featuring a 3-pointer immediately after the Nene incident and another triple with 24.2 seconds remaining to give the Bulls the lead for good.
“I think so,” Butler replied, when asked if the situation improved his focus. “But I think even those shots were there, I would’ve taken them and I still think I would’ve made them too. But definitely that’s a momentum-changer.”
He admitted, however, that the extra rest he received was also a factor: “That might have had a little to do with it, to tell you the truth.”
Thibodeau added: “You’d like to give him more, but in Game 2, because of the situation that we were in, digging out of that hole, when you’re down 17, you’re up against it. So to get out of that hole, I felt I couldn’t do it, but ideally, I would like to give him more rest and I think it did help him.”
Either way, Butler’s teammates were thrilled for him to bounce back.
“Really, at the end of the day, that shot Jimmy hit was huge. That was just a big, big play and we’re happy to get a win, and get in the series,” Dunleavy said. “He had made one earlier, a wing 3 and he was making his free throws, so when he shot that one, I felt pretty good about it and I felt like if it was going in, we were going to win this game. And it did, but it took a little more for us to hang on. But that was kind of the clincher for. It was a big shot.”
Gibson chimed in: “That’s just confidence. I told Jimmy before the game started—I told him he’s going to have a big game tonight. I just told him he has to be aggressive. He had to take advantage of this. He had to go after Beal because when Beal has too much energy on offense, it hurts us because he’s a talented scorer. You have to go at him, make him use energy of defense and Jimmy was attacking.”