Jimmy Butler scored a career high 35 points along with a game high seven assists, five rebounds, four steals and a block. He made four of seven threes, including a vital one with 3:02 remaining and the Bulls hanging on 93-91; he made nine of 10 from the free throw line, played just under 45 minutes, defended the Knicks most aggressive scorer, and carried the Bulls through an uneven first half when he scored 17 points.
Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Butler's career-high carries Bulls

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By Sam Smith | 12.19.2014 | 3:00 a.m. CT

Jimmy Butler didn’t know what the big deal was. After all, he’s just good ‘ol Jimmy from Tomball, Texas.

“I don’t want to be a star,” Butler was saying in answer to a question after the Bulls struggling 103-97 victory Thursday over the New York Knicks. “I just want to be a decent role player on a really good team. Whatever my team needs: If that’s scoring, rebounding, passing the ball or just playing defense, that’s my job on this team. Those guys are always looking for me to be successful. Whenever you have teammates like that who have confidence in you, it’s very easy to have confidence in yourself.

“I think I’m Ok at scoring right now,” said Butler. “They give me the ball in incredible position and make it really easy for me; they’re good at driving and kicking and finding me to where I really don’t have to do too much. That’s what great teammates are all about. They see I’m in a rhythm and continue to do that for me. I’ve never been the best player on my team, probably never will be. But I’ve always been a hard worker, a guy who doesn’t give up on himself, who has the most confidence in himself. Now I play for the Chicago Bulls.”

And as Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said afterward, “Thank god for Jimmy Butler.”

Butler scored a career high 35 points along with a game high seven assists, five rebounds, four steals and a block. He made four of seven threes, including a vital one with 3:02 remaining and the Bulls hanging on 93-91; he made nine of 10 from the free throw line, played just under 45 minutes, defended the Knicks most aggressive scorer, Tim Hardaway Jr., and carried the Bulls through an uneven first half when he scored 17 points, including a dozen in the first quarter.

Is Butler now a superstar, Pau Gasol, who had 20 points, seven rebounds and five blocks, was asked: “I would say so. He’s playing extremely well, a lot of confidence with a lot of aggressiveness. He’s asserting himself every game at both ends. I look forward to seeing him continuing to play at this level. It’s not easy to do. He’s doing outstanding. I’m just proud of him.”

TNT personality Charles Barkley on the national broadcast from courtside labeled Butler a role player, though that was generally also taken as approbation because the view was with Barkley’s love for cinnamon rolls it was his highest praise.

Kirk Hinrich, starting for Rose and with his own crucial three in the fourth quarter added: “It’s a great story; the fact he did it the hard way, earned playing time. Now he’s got the respect of everyone in the league. He’s playing as well as anyone in the league. The best thing is he’s a two-way player, his versatility, his athleticism, his ability to get his own shots but also to get shots for other people and defensively he’s a lock down defender. With his size and athleticism at his position, he’s a unique player. He plays hard and has the heart and people don’t realize how far that goes in this league. He’s been huge for us all year. Right now I don’t know what we’d do without Jimmy.”

Well, lose to the now 5-23 Knicks for one thing.

It was not a particularly inspiring game for the Bulls, now 16-9 and barely up to 5-5 at home. Derrick Rose was out ill, Taj Gibson was out with his sprained ankle, Joakim Noah was coming back after missing about two weeks with his sprained ankle and the Knicks were desperate for a win and outhustling a cautious Bulls team.

Against a dispirited and incomplete, if not also inadequate, Knicks team missing injured Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Cleanthony Early and Andrea Bargnani, the Knicks featured a starting lineup with Amar’e Stoudemire, who was not supposed to play but did with so many injuries, Travis Wear (did he come from) and Cole Aldrich. And early in the fourth quarter, the Knicks not only led 77-75, but they were clobbering the Bulls on the boards.

“The rebounding was a problem for us all night,” agreed Thibodeau. “But I thought we came up with key rebounds late (offensive rebounds by Gasol and Noah in the last 14 seconds leading by three). We’ve been rebounding the ball very well the last three weeks; we had a lot in the first half we were able to able to get our hands on but not secure it.”

The Knicks finished with a 41-32 rebounding edge, 14-11 on the offensive boards, an amazing 25-8 in second chance points with Aldrich and Samuel Dalembert making the Bulls look like they forgot about box out school, and thus a 36-28 edge in the paint, where the Bulls often are dominant.

So it was left to Butler, but with a significant assist from the reserves, who had been a bit too reserved in recent games.

“Niko (Mirotic with 13 points) and Aaron (Brooks with 18 and three of five threes), I thought were phenomenal,” said Thibodeau. “Niko made a lot of great plays, particularly in the first half. He made shots and made plays off the dribble, he hustled. I was very pleased with the way he played. We did not play a great game, but we found a way to win in the end. Now the challenge is for us to keep moving forward. (Friday) will be a test for us. Playing a great team. We will have to do better.”

The Bulls began with some indifference to match the Knicks lethargy, a 13-13 first eight minutes. It was Mirotic who then energized the Bulls with a steal from Hardaway that led to a Mike Dunleavy fast break, the first of three consecutive Mirotic assists for scores with then Dunleavy and Butler threes as Butler’s shot continues to even look like it’s going in.

“I think I worked on it a lot over the summer, and continue to work on it every night and before practice,” said Butler. “The rim was looking pretty big tonight. Whenever I’m open, I have to take the shot. Sometimes I don’t. I realize how open I am, but I still don’t take it because I want to pass more than I want to shoot it.”

Shoot, Jimmy shoot.

Those Mirotic moments that concluded with a Butler pullup in transition gave the Bulls a 30-20 lead after the first quarter and you assumed the Knicks had their run for the game. Hinrich found the range in the second quarter after a mini slump and the Bulls got out to a 48-37 lead after his and Mirotic’s threes late in the second quarter. But Stoudemire continued to show determination. He finished with 16 points while Hardaway had 23 and the Knicks closed within 52-45 at halftime. It just seemed like the Bulls needed to shape their defense with Noah returning and not fully on point yet. He had 13 rebounds, six offensive, but shot just one of eight.

“I miss him out there because he’s a guy who does all the little things, all the dirty work,” said Gasol of Noah. “He gets rebounds, gets the ball. Defensively, he gets into people. His hands are very active. I think he brings a lot of value to our team. It was great to have him out there. It’s important we stay strong through the bumps on the road and journey and find a way to win and be successful with injuries or players being out. Obviously, we would like to have the entire squad healthy at some point. That would be nice. It would be helpful on the floor as well. But there are some things you can’t control. You have to keep working and stay positive.”

Gibson traveled with the team to Memphis, though Rose remained back in Chicago and the Bulls said they’d decide Friday if he could fly in and join the team.

But it seemed what we had here was a failure to communicate; the Knicks did not appear to understand they were supposed to be the bug on the Bulls windshield.

They shot 57 percent in the third quarter led by Hardaway with 11 and scored in 10 of their last 12 possessions of the third quarter. Butler matched Hardaway with 11 in the quarter in playing the entire second half. But when Dalembert threw in an awkward shot to close the third, the Knicks had stunned the home crowd with a 74-73 lead going into the fourth quarter.

“We relaxed a little bit at times,” said Gasol. “They kept playing. The ball got a little stagnant at times. There wasn’t enough ball movement and motion and energy in our offense. That helped them out a little bit.”

The Bulls opened the fourth with a 14-3 run highlighted by seven points from Mirotic and Butler turning a steal into a fast break dunk and getting fouled winning a race to a loose ball. Everyone asked who were those guys for the Knicks, and just who were those guys chasing the Bulls’ Butch and Sundance as the Knicks came back with a 12-3 run. Suddenly it was 90-89 Bulls with 4:13 left. Lose to them without Anthony? No wonder Anthony passed on the Bulls last summer.

It was then that Brooks made the big plays with a three pointer on a pass from Gasol when the defense sunk in, a drive for free throws and a terrific pass along the baseline from the left corner with Gasol alone underneath for a layup and 100-97 lead with 52.9 seconds left.

“It was a tough angle,” Gasol said. “It was tough to catch because he went through the net. You never know how that ball is going to come off. I just got my hands ready, tried to catch it and make a play and score. I didn’t think that he was going to see me. But he saw me open and he threw it instead of shooting it, which I appreciated. I was happy I was able to catch it, shoot it and give us a bigger lead.”

The Knicks would not score again after the Bulls controlled those two late offensive rebounds.

Which proved just enough with what Butler did.

“You can’t say enough about it him,” said Thibodeau in his usual preface for Butler. “He takes big shots, plays defense, gets to the line. He makes plays, plays unselfishly, plays hard, doesn’t not take any possessions off. Just having a phenomenal year. My thing to him is why put a lid on it? Where can it go; I don’t know? All I know is it keeps going up. That is how I want him to approach it. He brings great concentration and great effort every day. You bring those things, couple that with his talent, great things are going to happen and he’s showing that. The best leadership you can have is by doing all the right things. You can’t put any more into than he’s putting into it now. When you look at our season with Joakim being out for a good chunk of it, Taj being out for a good chunk of it, Derrick being out for a good chunk of it, thankfully he’s played that way; same with Pau. That’s really carried us. And Aaron Brooks and Niko off the bench have been a huge bonus for us.

“Jimmy is very versatile,” noted Thibodeau. “He’s a power guard; he can go off the dribble, post him, pick and roll with him, catch and shoot with him. He’s real smart. You can run offense with him; he can handle the ball. There’s not much he can’t do and defensively he is great. He’s as good as it gets in this league. I leave anything out?”