WASHINGTON — Jimmy Butler’s team-record 60 minutes in Wednesday’s triple-overtime Bulls’ road win over the Magic is quite the eye-popping statistic, to be sure.
But not only should it not come as surprise to observers, but the sense that Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau is somehow overworking his players shouldn’t be a hot topic right now. First, this is nothing new for Thibodeau — or Butler; remember his streak of three consecutive full 48-minute games against the Heat in the playoffs last spring? — and secondly, the coach correctly believes there’s a precedent for his distribution of minutes.
“Any time you have a triple-overtime game, if you look at any box score in a triple-overtime game, there’s going to be guys that play minutes. You can’t not play guys,” Thibodeau insisted after the Bulls’ morning shootaround Friday at the Verizon Center, where they will take on the Wizards.
“No, I think you guys watch that,” he continued, addressing the assembled media, when asked about the heavy workloads of his players. “And I think when you look at that, you have to compare apples to apples. If you look at the top small forwards in the league and you look at where their minutes are, they all average 37 to 38 minutes. So if you want to say (Luol Deng, the former Bull, who led the league in minutes per game the past two seasons under Thibodeau) played 20 seconds a game more than he should have, then so be it. And if you look at total minutes, it wasn’t even close. But overall, our minutes are way below what normal starters do. And if you guys study the history of the league, which I’m sure you do, and the great Bulls teams, you’ll see that (Michael) Jordan, (Scottie) Pippen, well into their 30s, were playing huge minutes. So I’m trying to be like Phil (Jackson, the former Bulls head coach).
“I know, I sat on that other bench. And I was always sitting there, saying, ‘When’s he going to take them out? When’s he going to take them out?’ And he never did. And you know what? That was great coaching. And (San Antonio head coach Gregg) Popovich was the same way with (Spurs big man Tim) Duncan, early on in his career. And, I think ‘Pop,’ certainly he and Phil, are certainly two of the best. Maybe the greatest of all-time, both of them. I think how you pace your team is important. It’s easy to look at a box score and say, ‘Oh, that’s too much.’ But what you don’t see is, you don’t see the days off in practice. You don’t see what you have a guy do in practice. You may not have contact in practice. You may do shooting, you may do film. There’s a lot of things that go into it. I think I have a pretty good understanding, after 24 years, how to pace a team.”
Butler seemed to accept the fact that in certain games, playing major minutes will be his fate, especially in the wake of Deng getting traded to Cleveland.
“It’s just basketball. Whatever the team needs me to do, so I feel like this is just another game. Another game in the books for us,” reflected the swingman, who said he’s “good to go” for the Bulls’ second game against Washington this week. “I just think I always want to help win. I always want to be on the floor, so I guess you’ve got to be careful for what you ask for because since I was a rookie, I told them I wanted to play.”