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From Butler's view, no excuses on defending James

LeBron finally breaks down Bulls guard in critical Game 5

POSTED: May 13, 2015 1:36 AM ET
UPDATED: May 13, 2015 9:38 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Bulls vs. Cavaliers

LeBron James 38 points, 12 rebounds and six assists leads the Cavs to a 3-2 series lead versus the Bulls, 106-101.

— Marv Albert signed off from Cleveland for the TNT crew, a little voice-over to images of the star of Game 5. "What a night for LeBron James!"

A short while later, walled off from the rest of the room by a crush of cameras, microphones and reporters around Chicago's Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler slowly got dressed. Methodically, he tugged on his jeans, then buttoned his shirt, all the way to the top, both cuffs as well. He sat, bent down and carefully laced and tied his Nike sneakers, getting the knot just so. Not once but twice, equal lengths of the laces hanging, balanced, from both sides.

It had been a hectic, harrowing, demanding, draining night, and Butler by the end of it seemed eager to control what he could control.

James, the league's best player and Butler's grueling primary defensive assignment, had gone off a monster game: 38 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals, three blocked shots and no turnovers. Only two others in NBA playoff history ever had gone for 35-10-5-3-3, at least since 1973 when steals and blocks began to be tracked (Dwyane Wade in 2006 and Elvin Hayes in 1975).

Butler, having shadowed James for four games and totaling 10 fouls in 169 minutes, got whistled for two in the first 7:16 Tuesday night at Quicken Loans Arena. That sent him to the bench, turning James' already hot start even hotter. The Cleveland star abused Tony Snell, Butler's replacement, with a 16-foot turnaround jumper.

Then with Butler back in the game and locked back in the matchup, James scored 16 more points in the second quarter to Butler's six.

"I don't know, two fouls, Jimmy sits down," James said afterward. "But I felt like at the start of the game I was in a good groove anyways. So it didn't matter to me. Not tonight. Not the way my approach to the game was. Not the way I was feeling."

Later in the game, as the Cavaliers built their lead to as much as 17 points and then let it dwindle to as little as two, James and Butler pushed, poked and prodded. It's a thankless assignment, so often isolated against James in all his explosive, bruising glory.

Through the series' first four games, Butler had managed to make James look mortal; sure, he had averaged 26.0 points but he had shot 37.7 percent (40 of 106) in the process, including 2-of-19 from 3-point range. James also had 23 turnovers, offsetting some of the 36 assists he had totaled.

So whatever Butler sacrificed on offense -- he shot 39.7 percent himself through Game 4, while averaging 19.3 points -- the Bulls were willing to accept, given the energy expended, concentration required and battering endured in trying to always stay between James and the hoop. Didn't matter whether he was posting up near the paint, jab-stepping on the perimeter while sizing up a jumper or barreling in on a fast break, that was Butler's duty and he mostly did it.

He has done it for five games in nine days now, more than 210 minutes. He finished with 29 points, his high in the series, and 14 in the fourth quarter when his tank should have been on "E." Butler drilled a 3-pointer with 2:56 to get Chicago within 101-96, then bothered James enough at the other end to get a 3-point miss.

Butler lined up and hit another from the top of the arc at 1:18 to cut Cleveland's lead to just two. And after James blocked Derrick Rose the next time the Bulls went down the floor, it was Butler out of a timeout getting an ideal look from the right side for what would have been the lead with 45.9 seconds left.

Naturally, James claimed the rebound. But when the Cavs star missed from 10 feet at 22.9 seconds, neither Butler (who finished with nine rebounds) nor any of his teammates could get the ball back. Instead, Iman Shumpert kept Cleveland's possession alive and the Cavaliers' controlled the clock down to zeroes.

So Butler scored 29 and wound up nine points shy of James. He shot 9-of-18 but missed the one that mattered most. He attacked the basket hard at one point in the first half and went down harder, rattling off Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov and landing on his tailbone.

So he got dressed slowly? Butler should have been doing everything slowly, from walking to talking. He is doing so much in the series and it's not enough. His Bulls team is down 3-2 and Butler is signed up for another four or eight quarters of hell.

"Nobody cares," Butler said of the wear and tear, along with the psychic scars, this series has inflicted. "Nobody feels sorry for me anyway. I'm supposed to produce at both ends of the floor. Make shots. And guard. I've just got to do better."

Do better. Chicago likes to think of itself as a blunt, no-nonsense town and that's a big-shoulders way of approaching his duty on James. When he subbed back in to start the second quarter, knowing that a third foul would sit him down again, Butler wasn't surprised to be lined up again against James. No rest for the weary.

"It's just part of the game plan," said Butler, taciturn as the Texan he is when talking serious business. "Just got to guard without fouling. Sometimes that's the way it goes. But that's that. Can't change it."

James roared to his best game of the five so far in the series and patted himself on his own back for avoiding even a single turnover. Meanwhile, Butler was down the hall, quietly licking his wounds and searching for ways to do better in a largely no-win situation.

"I don't mind him being my shadow," James said. "I don't mind it at all. I'll take all competition. I love going against Jimmy. I think it brings out the best in myself. And I try to reciprocate back to him."

Butler's teammates are aware of that, too. "Jimmy's a tough character," Mike Dunleavy said. "Tonight LeBron made some shots, Jimmy got a little out of the flow with his fouls, and that hurts his aggressiveness. But I don't worry about Jimmy in terms of wearing down or getting beat up. He's played major minutes all year. He's a warrior and he'll be ready for Game 6."

Coping with the Cavs' star is a team-defense burden and all the Bulls know it. But when it's framed as James vs. Jimmy, they'll roll with their guy. For however long is left.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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