“I think I have [gotten better],” Butler admitted cautiously, “but my teammates have a lot to do with it. I can’t get the ball there by myself. They’re always looking for me when I have a mismatch. They’re always looking to give me the ball. Confidence is always a key in this league. If you feel you can do something, you can. You just got to keep telling yourself you can.”
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

Bulls bulldoze Brooklyn behind Butler

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By Sam Smith | 11.30.2014 | 9:03 p.m. CT

Jimmy Butler’s story is well known, homeless at 13, junior college, Marquette taking a chance on a kid no one wanted, bottom of the first round, 30th, in 2011, then barely playing for almost two years. And then last summer, back to his beloved Texas with a training routine that may now become the rage of kids everywhere, or, at least parents. No TV, no cable, no internet. Just three times a day to the gym.

“Not (quitting) civilization,” Butler said with a laugh. “I just didn’t have internet and cable (last summer). Without it, you basically don’t do anything else. We just went to the gym a lot. Every day in the summer, I worked on (the post game), back to the basket, turnaround jumpers, facing up. I think that’s the biggest change in my game, getting to my spots and making my shots.”

Gotten better? someone asked of Butler Sunday after the Bulls dominating 102-84 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.

“I think I have,” Butler admitted cautiously, “but my teammates have a lot to do with it. I can’t get the ball there by myself. They’re always looking for me when I have a mismatch. They’re always looking to give me the ball. Confidence is always a key in this league. If you feel you can do something, you can. You just got to keep telling yourself you can.”

It’s a terrific message for basketball, but a better one for life.

That Jimmy Butler is where he is has been a bonus for the Bulls, who pushed their season record to 11-6 and 4-3 on the grueling 15-day “circus” road trip. Butler led the Bulls in scoring once again with 26 points, including 11 of 13 from the free throw line, where the Bulls are dominating teams thanks to Butler.

Butler has now moved into the top 10 in the NBA in scoring, is averaging 26.3 over the last four games and with eight of his last nine games of at least 20 points. Plus, Butler has become one of the more physical offensive players in the league, averaging more than 10 free throws per game the last eight games and 15 per game in the Bulls’ last three.

Here’s a shooting guard who a few years ago shot jump shots like he was throwing a football. He’s still not a great three point shooter, but is shooting almost 50 percent overall. He’s become one of the elite defensive guards in the league and with another fabulous effort Sunday in holding seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson to three points on one of seven shooting.

From East to West, Butler has gathered the praise with the Clippers Doc Rivers to open the trip Nov. 17 and Boston’s Brad Stevens Friday labeling Butler an All-Star player. Butler’s opened eyes if not also left jaws dropping with his rugged individualism and team commitment.

“I just think I strive to do whatever it takes to help my team win,” Butler said. “Scoring, guarding, facilitating, whatever it might be. I’m just a winner. I don’t care about stats.”

But those stats have enabled the Bulls, now 5-0 this season with their regular starting five, to emerge with a true Big Three offensive trio to go along with their rugged defense.

Pau Gasol added 25 points and 13 rebounds Sunday and Derrick Rose had 14 points.

It’s the ideal the Bulls—and perhaps any team—truly has strived to produce. Now Rose can concentrate on being the point guard, the distributor to push the Bulls offense as they had a 27-8 edge in fast break points and the facilitator like when he made two terrific passes to Butler on fast breaks in a third quarter run that broke open the game and gave the Bulls a 76-63 lead after three.

“That’s our point guard for you,” said Butler. “He’s so unselfish, always looking for the open guy. I just happened to be the open guy the majority of the time.”

Having Butler scoring as he has should take pressure off Rose not only to score so much, but to push his body and perhaps limit injury. Plus, it gives the Bulls offense the additional variety with Gasol inside, where he wore down the Nets, and Butler in the post and off the dribble, where his power and quickness doesn’t allow anyone to stay with him and enables him to draw so many fouls.

And then Rose can make plays, thus making the Bulls much less predictable offensively in potential playoff situations.

That Butler has developed like this comes as a surprise to everyone who doesn’t know Jimmy Butler. Look, he was picked 30th in the NBA draft. As Butler likes to often say he wasn’t supposed to be here, anyway, not from little Tomball, Texas. But in a sense he was and should be. Because he has done the work of stars. Not only did he believe in himself, which is the greatest trait for success, but he went to work to make himself better in the summer, as the great stars do. They identify what they cannot do and return to the game with something new and different. Butler has made himself a star in the NBA the best way possible, by working for it, believing in himself and overcoming doubts and detractors.

“I just wanted to be on the (opponent) scouting report,” laughed Butler, who routinely defers questions about individual accomplishment. “I don’t think I was on the scouting report last year. Maybe I made it onto people’s scouting reports this year. My mindset (in 2011) was just to stick in this league, find a way to help the team win. You’ve got to show the organization and your teammates you are here to play.”

Butler always has, even if the first year and a half was mostly in practice. It certainly has to be satisfying for Butler, but more so because of what he has been able to do for his team.

Once again Sunday, Butler was able to provide that additional scoring that potentially turns a team from good to great. Having scorers like Gasol and Rose and with the emergence of Butler, that gives the Bulls three players who can score 20 points in every game. It’s one of the formulas for ultimate success and all three have been improving as this trip continued.

Obviously, the most attention has been directed, as it always is, toward Rose. He started somewhat unsteadily, even shooting a pair of air ball threes.

“I think that was a first,” laughed Rose. “I try to have amnesia. I am just trying to take every positive out of the situation. Just string some games together, try to get better every quarter. The record is not where we want it to be, but it’s a long season. We ended on a good note. I think that was our best game throughout the entire trip.”

It was relatively complete game as Nikola Mirotic had 12 points and 12 rebounds and Aaron Brooks scored 11 points with a pair of threes, both playing well off the bench. The Bulls dominated the Nets 50-34 on the boards, smothered Johnson and Deron Williams in holding them to four for 19 shooting with good defensive efforts from Rose and Kirk Hinrich, thwarted the Nets inside as the Nets scored on just 20 of 43 chances against the long arms of Gasol and Joakim Noah, had that rare 27-8 margin in fast break points and even witnessed the spectacle of an erratic Kevin Garnett with seven points seemingly trying to bite Noah late in the game.

Given pro sports holds itself as a model, it would seem inconceivable despite Garnett’s denial of his intent that he wouldn’t be fined or suspended.

Garnett told reporters after the game he’s a good biter and if he chose to he certainly could have taken a chunk out of Noah. Really, is this what it’s come to with him?

“I know how to bite someone,” Garnett explained. “Obviously, I was messing around in that moment. If I wanted to bite him, I would have just done it. Shout out to Mike Tyson (who bit Evander Holyfield during a fight).”

When Noah was later asked about it, he said, sure, Garnett tried to bite him. Hey, it’s Garnett.

“Yeah, (I was aware),” laughed Noah. “He tried to bite me; that’s crazy. It’s unbelievable KG tried to bite me. I don’t even know what to say. I’m happy he didn’t connect.”

Just gamesmanship?

“Somebody trying to bite you is a little more than trying to get in your head,” agreed Noah. “It’s pretty amazing. I know how competitive he is and it drives him crazy to lose like that. I’m not worried about KG. I just worry about us staying healthy and getting better.”

Taj Gibson remains out with his bad ankle, but the Bulls return home to play Dallas Tuesday (though back on the road to Charlotte Wednesday) with nine road wins to tie Golden State for most in the league and as healthy as they’ve been this season.

“Yesterday, I though they were great in practice,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, he of the little details lead to the big results. “Today they were great in walk through. I think we’re moving in the right direction. I love the offense; I love the defense. Rebounding was much better, sharing the ball, getting to the free throw line. When you look at the way Jimmy played it was unbelievable on both sides of the ball. Pau as well. Jo was playing great defense. Kirk in foul trouble was competing, playing great defense. Derrick got going. He gave us a lift in the third quarter.”

That was as the Nets stayed close, trailing 47-42 at halftime, though the Bulls mostly controlled the game. Butler had 16 points in the first half with nine of 10 from the free throw line, including a first quarter run out dunk on a pass from Brooks after Mirotic, who was going over Nets defenders for the ball, kept a possession alive with a rebound for a Hinrich three. Butler then had the finish of the game midway through the second quarter with a left handed catch and slam over Garnett on another Brooks pass. Meanwhile, Gasol was having his way with drop steps, spins and inside hooks. And then the Bulls broke away with three early Gasol third quarter scores and Butler finishing two beautiful breaks, one Noah to Rose and Butler and then Rose to Butler. That one gave the Bulls a 58-48 lead.

“Derrick is getting us easy baskets,” said Thibodeau. “The attention the opponent has to put on him. If he’s not going to score it creates easy offense for others.”

Then the Bulls pulled steadily away to open the fourth quarter after a Brooks three pointer and three-point play put the Bulls ahead 84-68 with 8:30 left. Mirotic and another Brooks three soon had the Nets emptying their bench.

Though Brooks gets questioned at times for his individual play and defense, he is an ideal energizer with terrific shooting range and an uncanny ability to get to the basket. He may be the best of these small reserve guards who have helped the Bulls these last four years.

But there’s been nothing like the emergence of Butler into a potential league All-Star.

“He’s embraced that role, prepared himself well and continued to work at it,” Thibodeau said of Butler emerging as the team’s leading scorer. “He’s playing with great intensity, studying, preparing. He practices hard. So I’m not surprised. Each year Jimmy has been in the league he’s made big jumps. He’s a very bright guy. He’s obviously talented. You can’t do it without talent. (It’s also) his intelligence, drive, the way he analyzes how he is playing and what to work on to improve. Day after day he gives you everything he has. Those types of guys always improve.”

There just aren’t that many. The Bulls got a good one.

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