HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — In Chicago, they’re getting mighty used to seeing No. 21 on the floor. That’s because Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau rarely takes second-year swingman Jimmy Butler out anymore.
The youngster from Marquette is racking up the minutes and stands to be an integral part of any postseason success the Bulls (42-34, fifth in the East) might have — with or without Derrick Rose.
“I love his demeanor,” Thibodeau said. “I love the fact that you don’t have to wind him up. He has great energy every day.”
It’s been crucial on a club that’s dealt with its share of injury woes from Rose missing the entire season to Rip Hamilton possibly being done for the season to Joakim Noah‘s and Marco Belinelli‘s eight-game absence that ended with both players back in the lineup Sunday at Detroit.
Belinelli’s abdominal injury opened a starting spot for the 6-foot-7 Butler and he remained there in Sunday’s disappointing 92-90 loss to the Pistons. Even with Belinelli back and playing 20 minutes, Butler, in just his 14th start of the season and eighth in a row, went for 45 minutes. Some of that heavy load was caused by a hip injury to Luol Deng that sidelined the NBA’s minutes leader (39.2 mpg) for Sunday’s game and likely more.
Still, 40-plus minutes are becoming routine for Butler, an excellent rebounder and solid defender who is aggressively building his offensive game. In seven of his last eight games, he’s logged 42-45 minutes. In the one game he didn’t, he logged 39 minutes. During that stretch, he’s practically doubled his season average of 24.8 mpg, a number that’s obviously risen of late.
There have been bumps in the road, but Thibodeau has praised Butler’s progress from a rough rookie season that didn’t include a full training camp or many practice days due to the lockout and truncated schedule. He played in 42 games last season, averaging 2.6 ppg. He attempted just 11 3-pointers all season, making two.
Now he’s putting up 8.1 ppg while shooting 46.0 percent from the floor. He’s lifted his 3-point shooting to 33.7 percent. In the last eight games as a starter, he’s produced 14.0 ppg, has gone 10-for-23 from beyond the arc (43.5 percent) and 37-for-85 overall (43.5 percent). He produced similar numbers earlier in the season when he replaced an injured Deng in the starting lineup for four games.
“As long as he continues to work, and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t, he’s going to continue to get better and better,” Thibodeau said. “He showed a great commitment last summer and just the way he works every day. I think those types of guys always get better.”
Butler scored in double figures in seven of his last eight starts. The one game he did not, the Bulls failed to close out a 12-point lead late in the fourth quarter in a 100-98 loss at Dallas. It was a particularly painful day for Butler, but one that gained him even more respect from his coach and teammates.
During the Mavs’ push to steal the win, Butler got mismatched on Dirk Nowitzki and the 7-footer dropped a patented fallaway jumper to get Dallas within 98-97 with 27.8 seconds to go. Butler then got fouled and went to the free throw line with a chance to give Chicago a three-point lead with 15.9 seconds left.
An 81.1 percent free-throw shooter, Butler missed both and Nowitzki hit the game-winner for an all-around agonizing day for Butler, scoring four points on 1-for-8 shooting. Back in the Bulls’ disbelieving locker room, Butler fell on the sword.
“I don’t care what anybody says. That’s the reason we lost this game,” Butler said. “I couldn’t care less what my teammates say. I know better. This one is on me without a doubt. And that’s that.”
Asked if he was nervous heading to the line for the pressure-packed free throws, Butler answered: “I’m not going to say I was nervous because I was very confident. I’m supposed to be a good free-throw shooter.”
It will be interesting to see if Thibodeau continues to start Butler even as Belinelli, who has started 23 games in place of Hamilton, gets healthier. The Bulls play at home Tuesday against Toronto and on Thursday they could have the opportunity to bust another streak. The Knicks could bring a 13-game winning streak to Chicago just two weeks after Butler helped to halt Miami’s streak at 27.
Butler is certainly making a case that he’s capable of being the Bulls’ starting shooting guard next season if the team doesn’t re-sign Belinelli, a free agent this summer.
“The thing that impressed me the most was right after [last] season he was in the gym and put a lot of work in each and every day,” Thibodeau said. “He told me how serious he was and the type of commitment he was willing to make, so he’s earned his way. Nothing’s been given to him. He’s earned it.”
Right now that means about 43 minutes every game.