The ultimate irony from the Oklahoma City vs. Chicago game at United Center Monday night would be for the official scorer’s report issued at the end of the night to show “DNP-Rest” next to both Russell Westbrook’s and Jimmy Butler’s names.
It’s not clear if those two guys rest when the rest of the world is sleeping, never mind during the two-and-a-half hours of your typical NBA game.
It would be entirely in character, in fact, if the Thunder’s and the Bulls’ games were to begin not with a tipoff but a checkered flag, after the requisite P.A. announcement of “Gentlemen, start your engines!” That’s how high Westbrook and Butler rev in any given game, so maybe RPM is a better stat to assess them than PPG.
And when Butler missed the Bulls’ shootaround Monday morning, raising concerns about his availability to face OKC, it was due to a fever. See, running hot even in his down time.
"Jimmy is at home not feeling well." Coach Hoiberg says Butler is a gametime decision tonight.— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) January 9, 2017
If there is any star player in the league who works harder than Butler, it’s Westbrook. And vice versa. Bruce Springsteen might have inherited from James Brown the crown as hardest working man in show business, but the Boss is a slacker compared to the efforts given as SOP by Butler and Westbrook.
Other guys might work just as hard, but it’s safe to say that nobody outworks either of them.
"So many guys in this league have talent," Chicago’s Dwyane Wade said late Saturday, after Butler scored 42 points – 32 of them after halftime – in the Bulls’ overtime victory against Toronto. “Everyone in this league has talent.
There's a lot of things that separate guys and that's one of them – the mentality. The mentality that it takes to, even if you’re having a bad game [like Butler had in Cleveland], still be able to do that in the clutch, that's big time. Those are special players right there. And he's putting himself in the category of just special."
Westbrook, this season’s one-man tribute to Oscar Robertson’s triple-double specialness, picked up his 17th this season with 32 points, 17 rebounds and 11 assists against Denver on Saturday. He has hit 15 of his 27 3-point attempts in OKC’s past two games, and he has been on everybody’s Most Valuable Player radar since former teammate Kevin Durant left to sign with Golden State. That’s how Westbrook rolls – a chip on one shoulder, his game unleashed from sidekick status, no mercy for the rest of the league.
Butler has put himself on some MVP voters eventual 5-spot ballots not with Westbrook’s speed and perpetual motion but by the way he grinds at not just both but all ends. That is, offensive, defensive and late in games.
“You look at the two-way players in this league, and you can put Jimmy up with any of ‘em,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “A lot of guys putting up huge numbers, they do it on one end and somebody else guards the other team’s best player. Jimmy’s doing both for us. To expend that amount of energy on the defensive end and continue to do what he does on offense says a lot about him.”
Butler is that CEO who walks his own letters down to the mail room, the artist who paints both masterpieces and the picket fence. He arrived in 2011 as the last pick of the first round, an unrecruited Marquette product with a flat trajectory on his jump shot, a stiffness to his game and an underdog backstory (homeless teen from Tomball, Texas) that fueled him.
Four years later, he had worked himself into an NBA All-Star signing a five-year, $95 million contract. He had some sidekick issues of his own along the way but those ended when Derrick Rose was traded to New York in June. When Wade came, it was in support of Butler, not as an older, fellow MU alum to lead or mentor him.
"When a guy comes in the league as a defender like he did and plays so hard,” Wade said, “and then in a short period of time turn himself into an All-Star, a 20-point-a-game scorer, you know he's putting work in. And then once I got here I saw it.
“The thing about him, the last few games, he's been balling out of control. But every night he's in the gym, he's putting the work in, and I love to see it. He's not at home kicking his feet up because he had a 52-point game or a 40-point game. He's still working. The guy wants to be great. Now his confidence is there and he can do whatever he wants out there."
In his past six games, Butler has averaged 34.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 2.5 steals, while getting to the foul line 13.8 times per game. He, Westbrook and Houston’s James Harden are the only players this season with multiple games of 40-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and 5-plus assists. In the Bulls’ three January victories so far, according to ESPN researcher Micah Adams on Twitter, his player efficiency rating in fourth quarters and overtime has been 75.0 with a usage percentage of 48.0.
As closers go, those are Mariano Rivera numbers.
“It’s just basketball,” Butler said about his late-game takeovers. “When Fred Hoiberg is saying, ‘Give the ball to Jimmy,’ you’d better do something. When D-Wade is like, ‘Here!’ you’ve got to do something with it – make a play or make a play for somebody else.”
Doing it near the start of a game is one thing, doing it late is quite another. By a game’s 46th or 47th minute or in overtime, everybody on the floor likely is pretty tired. For many, that old Vince Lombardi quote applies: “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”
Butler more often goes by the old Marines saying, “No one ever drowned in sweat.”
Looking into his man’s eyes, sizing up the body language, Butler believes he has more left in his tank than the other guy.
“Very confident,” he said Saturday. “I do this every day. … Don’t let fatigue overtake you. It’s a mental state. If you let your body think you’re tired, then you’re tired. If you go out there and just keep winning, and pushing through a wall, you’ll be fine.”
Said Wade, pointing to his head: “It’s a mental thing, man. Physically everybody is as tired as you’re going to be. But it’s the confidence that you have. It’s the work that you put in, the shots that you’re shooting are shots you’ve taken when you’re tired, late nights in a gym. That guy right now, mentally, believes that he’s going to make everything.”
The next game Butler looks tuckered out before the final horn will be his first. The same goes for Westbrook, who vibrates like a hummingbird even when heading through the tunnel at the end of the night.
“We know Russ ain’t giving into fatigue," Wade said. "That guy has an unbelievable motor. But that guy over there [Butler] is not givin’ into it, either. It’s going to be a great game, great atmosphere. Russell is a show that everyone is coming to see. And Jimmy is turning into that."
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