MIAMI – While much of the NBA still is in its introductory phase with the Chicago Bulls’ fresh small forward/shooting guard – meet Jimmy Butler – LeBron James and the rest of the Miami Heat have moved on to the next stage of a young player’s career.
That is, beat Jimmy Butler.
Butler, a second-year guy out of Marquette and the last player drafted in 2011′s first round, earned some serious individual acclaim for the Bulls’ team victory in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series Monday. Matched up with the reigning MVP, Butler pestered James, stuck to him as much as possible and funneled him toward help defenders when he couldn’t. All if it contributed to a performance in which, yes, the Heat superstar eventually burst through for 15 points in the fourth quarter but was contained to just nine prior to that.
Butler did well at the other end, too, scoring 21 pints on 5-of-13 shooting and getting to the foul line 10 times, more than James (nine) and Dwyane Wade (zero) combined.
Oh, and he played every second of the Bulls’ 93-86 victory in the series opener, the third straight game – dating to Game 6 against Brooklyn in the first round – in which he has logged 48 minutes. So often, given his reputation and world-weary ways, Wade is the player who seems like the new “hardest working man in show business,” in need of some James Brown crew and robe to get helped to his feet. But lately, it’s been Wade’s fellow Marquette product in the J.B. role.
“To be able to play that many minutes in a row, obviously a lot of guys can’t do that and still be aggressive on the offensive end and defensively be able to guard different guards,” Wade said as Game 2 Wednesday night (7 p.m. ET, TNT) approached. “Obviously he has [something special]. That’s why Marquette chose him.”
Butler admitted he’s a little tuckered. But he added: “You learn to fight through it, when you do it so often. And it’s easy ’cause you have guys on your team that are in your corner when you are tired. You look at Lu [Deng], he does that 82 games. It’s definitely tough, but it’s all about your mental state. If you know in your mind that you can do it, your body will follow.”
Deng, the Bulls’ All-Star forward, has been out the past three games due to illness and complications from a spinal tap. He might be available for Game 3 but, just in case, Butler was taking no chances in terms of resting up for continued long, grueling minutes in his matchup with James. “Maybe sit outside in the sun instead of in your hotel room, but definitely stay off your feet,” he said of his plans for Miami down-time. “Take care of the things that take care of you.”
In time, Chicago will do that for Butler, one of the best bargains on the NBA scene ($1 million salary this season). Already he has been penciled into the shooting guard spot next to Derrick Rose for next year and eventually he might supplant Deng as Chicago looks for ways to manage payroll and add talent.
That’s how far Butler has come from his roots down in Tomball, Texas, on the outskirts of Houston, where his mother essentially decided to stop raising him and kicked him out of the house. It took a school friend, convincing the adults that their family of seven had room for one more, for Butler to get some proper care and upbringing as a teen.
He wound up at Marquette, coach Buzz Williams‘ first recruit (Marquette actually was interested in one of Butler’s teammates), and had a largely unheralded college career. As a Bulls rookie, Butler averaged 8.5 minutes and 2.6 points in deep reserve and was on the floor a total of four minutes in the six playoff games against Philadelphia.
But it was what he did on the side, on the days between games and in the summer that triggered a quantum leap this season and convinced Chicago even before training camp that he could take free agent Ronnie Brewer‘s spot in the depth chart.
“He was a four-year college player,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He came in with a defensive mindset. He’s got a lot of intangibles – strength, body balance, discipline, intelligence, multiple-effort mentality, really works at it, great work ethic. When you have those type qualities, you continue to improve. I thought he made a serious commitment last summer to improve and I think he has, and I think he’ll continue to get better.”
Butler is good enough to have grabbed the Heat’s attention now. He has grabbed a lot of folks’.
“I enjoy every moment of it. Hell, this is what you want when you’re little,” said the 23-year-old. “You want to play against [the best] because those are the guys you watch on TV. You always want to go against the best.”
Players and coaches on both sides were quick to note that Butler has the assignment of defending James but, good or bad, doesn’t wind up doing it by himself.
“I think Jimmy is a good solid defender,” James said. “It’s the system that’s built around him and the guys around him that makes you a really good defender. No matter how good you are individually, if you don’t have guys behind you that are talkin’ and helpin’ you, it doesn’t matter.
“That goes into my series with Boston with Tony Allen – he had Kevin Garnett and those guys behind him doing a lot of communication. The same with Tayshaun Prince in my early years, with Detroit – he had Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace. Now with Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler, they have Joakim Noah and those guys behind him.
“So you can be the greatest individual defender but if you don’t have the line behind you and the system, then you can get exploited.”
James did concede that Butler is active and attentive. He makes catching the ball difficult and applies sufficient pressure to ball handlers. And he has shown an ability to not bring referees’ whistles into the fray, not an easy thing when the offensive man has a reputation and familiarity while the defender is a newbie.
“Jimmy’s a great body position defender,” Thibodeau said. “He’s not a guy who does a lot of gambling and reaching. … He’s got a very good individual technique.”
Said Butler: “You never want to put the game in the [officials'] hands. Make it a players’ game. So when you’re out there playing, you don’t pay too much attention to the refs. You just play hard and they’ll do their job, they’ll do what they have to do.”
Play hard, play long – 48 more minutes is possible for Game 2, with Deng back in Chicago – and play the right way and Butler might win over not just the refs but the opponents, however grudgingly. That sort of stuff, though, is for later.
“To tell you the truth,” Butler said, “I could care less if the opponent respects me. As long as my teammates do for the most part. They’ve got confidence in me. I know what I’m capable of doing on both ends of the floor. I know I’m working hard. So if I gain [Miami's] respect by the end of the game, I’m good with that. If I don’t, I’m also good with that.”