PHOENIX—“Blazing saddles,” Joakim Noah explained, in reference to teammate Jimmy Butler, also known as “Cowboy” to his teammates. “Blazing saddles! That’s him.”
Butler notched his fifth straight double-figure scoring night Tuesday, scoring 18 points in the Bulls’ win over the Suns. And while it’s not as if the third-year swingman has suddenly morphed into the second coming of league scoring leader Kevin Durant, he’s in a much better place than he’s been for the majority of the season.
Butler has assumed former teammate and on-court mentor Luol Deng’s role as Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau’s heavy-minute workhorse, usually drawing the opposing team’s top perimeter defensive assignment—for example, in the Bulls’ first game of their ongoing six-game trip, a win in San Antonio last week, Butler defended Spurs All-Star point guard Tony Parker for large stretches of the contest—while still being relied upon to provide offense.
Butler is no longer that mysterious youngster that took the league by storm in the second half of last season and along with nagging injuries, the fact that he’s now on the opposing team’s scouting report has factored into his struggles.
“Yeah, I can tell,” he admitted to CSNChicago.com. “They don’t go under [screens] as much anymore. Then, they just know they’ve got to get back more in transition like everybody else, and I guess people are challenging my shot a lot more, so you can definitely tell.”
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That’s why he’s now focusing on getting back to his essence, a defensive-minded wing who can make plays in transition and away from the ball, and letting his offensive game develop from there.
“I feel like my teammates find me to where I take wide-open shots, so I get into the paint or get to the line. But whenever I let my defense dictate my offense, there’s not a lot of thinking involved. It’s just playing basketball,” he explained. “I think that’s where it starts for me. Mike James was definitely the one that was telling me, ‘Let your defense create your offense,’ so when I do that and I don’t think about offense, the offense comes.
“Once you start seeing the ball go in—layups, mid-range, the three, however it may be—you start to gain confidence. So I’ve got to just keep getting out in the open floor and getting layups,” Butler went on to say. “Just be aggressive. Whenever you’re open, shoot. If you’re not, pass. Get into the paint and get to the free-throw line.
“I think it’s coming. If I just keep working and taking the right shots, eventually they’re going to fall. I’ve just got to keep taking them.”
While Butler’s confidence noticeably dipped during a horrific January slump, his teammates believed he would eventually get back on track as a scorer.
“You knew he was going to come around. Jimmy is a real hard worker,” Noah said. “Jimmy had a lot of tough breaks early on, a lot of knick-knack injuries. The ankle, he got hit in the thigh real quick. Just because you’re not out and you come back for a game doesn’t mean it’s gone, you know what I’m what saying? So he’s been playing banged up, but I think he’s feeling better and better, and getting more comfortable.”
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau has also remained in Butler’s corner, as evidenced by the team continuing to run plays for him, even as shots weren’t falling, due to his all-around play, which includes ball-hawking individual defense, steals in the passing lanes, transition scoring and excellent rebounding for a perimeter player.
“When Jimmy wasn’t shooting the ball well for us, he was still helping the team a lot because of the energy he brings to the team. [Against San Antonio] he was guarding a point guard. So stuff like that goes a long way. Those steals that he had to get us into the open floor and get those easy baskets, you need stuff like that,” the coach said. “It’s better, which I knew it would be. Jimmy’s going to be fine. Everyone’s overreacting. Jimmy’s got to go out there, play hard, got to get in the gym and he’s got to shoot. Shooting comes down to two things mainly: confidence and your concentration. You put the work in and it’s going to come around. I always say this: the magic is in the work. Get out there and work. Do that and the results are going to be good.”
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It’s also evident that Butler put pressure on himself, both before and after the Deng trade, to live up to outsized expectations created by his run last spring, which were based on a small sample size. Perhaps he’ll never develop into a primary scorer—even a third-option type on a contending team could be stretching it—but a lockdown, elite-level wing defender and low-to-mid double-figure scorer isn’t exactly chopped liver, especially with the rough start to the season he had, including missing nearly a month with a turf-toe injury and other, more minor ailments more recently.
“A hard thing in this league is he’s had a number of different things creep up, and that’s something he’s not had in the past. I think missing part of training camp really set him back. Then he was really playing well three weeks into the season, got hurt again. That was another setback, so you’re going back to square one. Like I said the other night, he’s still playing well for us. He does so many other things and I think he needs some easy baskets to get going a little bit. That’s something he’s always done well, run the floor, move well without the ball, active on the glass, things like that. I think you have to the mental toughness, which I know he does, to get through things. His will and determination,” Thibodeau explained. “All players will have stretches where you shoot the ball a little bit better than others. You have your checklist on your shot, come in and continue to work on it. I’ve seen the best. You know Ray Allen would have a tough stretch and he would come in and shoot jumper after jumper. All players go through it. It’s part of the NBA. In basketball you’ve got to get through it, you’ve got to do other things that will help, and get yourself going that way.
“I think it’s foolish to measure a guy over seven or eight games. I think you have to look at it in totality. What’s he bringing to the team? What’s he doing for the team? How’s he working? How’s he practicing? Is he practicing with the proper intensity? What’s he bringing to the team there? He brings a lot to our team,” the coach added. “At the conclusion of the season, then you can fairly evaluate him. But to base it on one or two or three games, I’m not going to do that. As I told him, when he shoots the ball, as long as he’s balanced and shooting the right way and it’s a good shot, that’s all I want him to do. Shoot the ball well.”
The beauty of Butler is, even with his added swagger now that he has the confidence to know that he belongs—as evidenced by the Texas native’s more prominent display of his unique fashion sense and taste in music—he will maintain the same work ethic and mentality that took him from being an anonymous junior-college prospect, projected Marquette role player and lightly-regarded NBA draft pick to an impactful presence on every level.
Said Butler: “Still got a long way to go.”