CHICAGO – Brash talk for a guy picked last in the first round of his draft in 2011, a relative unknown by two names – Jimmy Butler – in a league where the big dogs need only one. Like, for instance, Carmelo.
So when Butler talked after the Chicago Bulls’ shootaround Thursday about the mind games he hoped to play with the great New York Knicks scorer Carmelo Anthony, it seemed like tugging on Superman’s cape or spitting into the wind.
Turns out, ‘Melo was the one who shouldn’t have messed around with Jim.
“Yeah, I think it was all right,” said Butler, the Bulls’ small forward drawing so many of the dirty defensive assignments these days. “Just challenging him, man. I’ve got that much respect for the guy.”
Butler respected the heck out of Anthony earlier in the day too, about 10 hours before Chicago’s overtime, streak-busting victory, but that didn’t stop him from sharing some of his game plan after shootaround. Stuff like crowding Anthony, making him uncomfortable physically, the usual pestering and hassling. But Butler talked as well about his ambition to get the Knicks star off his game mentally.
“There are ways you can get into him,” Butler said, “try to get into his head a little bit and just try to make everything as difficult as possible.”
OK, so how’d that work out for Butler? Anthony – on one of the most torrid scoring and shooting paces in NBA history – wound up taking 34 shots for his 36 points. He came in hitting 61.1 percent of his attempts over the previous five games (and 58.6 percent on 3-pointers), but walked off a loser for the first time since March 17, lugging a 38 percent performance overall, an 0-for-4 collar from the arc and a defunct 13-game winning streak.
“Every time we see Chicago, they try to beat us up. Especially seeing us shorthanded,” Anthony said, overlooking the Bulls’ many injuries too.
Anthony put up 10 shots in the game’s first nine minutes and had 12 by the end of the first quarter. He was getting the full attention not only of Butler but of Luol Deng in their tag-team shifts on him and as the Knicks’ early 23-6 lead fizzled down into single digits.
On one play, Anthony picked up a loose ball foul when he put a forearm into Butler’s back. Then, after a whistle in traffic in the lane, he came out yapping and picked up a technical from ref Joey Crawford.
Butler had plenty of help against the obvious focal point for any Knicks opponent. One time, as Anthony bulled back against Deng near the rim, Chicago’s Richard Hamilton snuck around him on the baseline and stripped the ball. In general, the Bulls made life miserable for him, as they did for New York in sweeping the four-game season series.
“They can have it [the sweep],” said Anthony, who still had a chance to settle things in regulation but his 21-footer at the buzzer bounced off. “They can have the regular season wins. … We’re not worried about them right now at this point.”
Nate Robinson was the drama king for Chicago, scoring 35 points (18 in the fourth quarter and overtime) and out-3-balling the 3-ball specialists. But Butler did so much of the grittier stuff, from shadowing Anthony to chasing J.R. Smith, from stealing and slamming consecutive New York turnovers in a pivotal third-quarter turnaround to hightailing downcourt defensively after Raymond Felton to thwart a Knicks break-out opportunity in the fourth.
The kid from Tomball, Texas, by way of Marquette, was the No. 30 pick in 2011, sandwiched between Cory Joseph and Bogan Bogdanovic. He mostly sat for Chicago as a rookie but with Ronnie Brewer gone, Butler’s rapid development has looked like elapsed-time cinematography.
“Every time he’s been called upon, he’s played huge,” Kirk Hinrich said. You can just see his comfort level is much higher and his confidence is much higher. He’s really grown up before our eyes.”
But had 14 rebounds against New York, his latest career high, while scoring 22 points. When the Bulls snapped Miami’s 27-game streak on March 27, Butler had 17 points, five assists and five boards while guarding Dwyane Wade. He scored 28 points on 10-of-12 shooting and logged 48 minutes against Toronto Tuesday, and Chicago now is 4-0 in his double-double games.
“I loved Jimmy’s demeanor,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said afterward. “Jimmy will keep coming, he doesn’t get discouraged. he has proved each and every day that he has gotten better and better.”
On the court. And in selected All-Star’s heads.