Jimmy Butler was settling in late Wednesday night to speak with reporters after another save, this one a bit different as Butler scored 14 fourth quarter points and absorbed a charge against LeBron James to save the Bulls from losing a 17-point lead and defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers 106-94.
It was the Bulls second win this season over the defending champion Cavaliers and brought their record back to .500 at 18-18. The Cavs dropped to 26-8 and 18-3 at home, though they did play without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
Bulls trainer Jeff Tanaka appeared with a large bag of ice, which he wrapped around Butler’s right shoulder. Reporters gasped; well, not actually, but there was a flash of concern; a scoop?
“Just what happens when you shoot too much,” joked Butler.
Yes, they’re smiling again in the Bulls locker room, a two-game new year’s winning streak with last night's win and Butler’s 52 points Monday against Charlotte, four wins in the last six games and some other positives that perhaps can begin turning around this frustrating season.
There was that undiscovered hope of the season, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic raining down threes, thus opening up interior driving lanes and enhancing the bench production. McDermott had 17 points with three of four threes, Mirotic had 16 points with three of seven threes, and the mid range Bulls were 13 of 30 on threes, shooting more than the usually long range Cavs. The Bulls had a 39-23 bench scoring edge.
Michael Carter-Williams had 13 points including seven straight in the third quarter when the Bulls opened up a then seemingly insurmountable 78-61 lead. Carter-Williams also was busy switching onto James several times in the fourth quarter, forcing James into two of his three fourth quarter turnovers.
The overall ball movement was better and quicker, Dwyane Wade back from knee swelling becoming more of a facilitator with the second unit. That got them more involved. McDermott and Mirotic combined to shoot 12 of 21.
And then there was Butler’s team high and fourth quarter heroics with the Cavs getting within 89-88 with 6:48 left on a James driving score. That actually would be the turning point thanks to Butler. Mirotic missed a three. Channing Frye rebounded for the Cavs and handed to James, who took off and with the Bulls on the heels it sure looked like the Cavs were going to take the lead back for the first time since early in the second quarter. The LeBron-centric crowd was roaring in anticipation. But then Butler stepped up, more physically this time than metaphorically, and the game changed.
He planted squarely in front of James, the positioning so adept that even James had to be called for a charge at home. No one was sure if it ever occurred before.
“Huge play,” agreed Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “You’re in a heck of a battle when you go up against LeBron. Big time play by a big time player.”
But that’s also real defense, not that stuff that goes on in the game today that passes for good defense, when someone dives across the lane in front of someone and falls down. Rarely do you even see players attempt to take a charge against James, probably the strongest man not named Wilt or Shaq ever to play basketball. Butler did it the pure way, moving his feet, squaring his shoulders, staying between his man and the basket, getting position and absorbing the shock of the most punishing player in NBA history on the run.
Everyone was stunned; Elias stats’ computers jammed.
Traction wasn’t even necessary.
Instead, Butler, who had just six points on two of 11 shooting through three quarters, took over when James is supposed to.
Butler hit a pull up three pointer on the next possession to give the Bulls a 92-88 lead and the barest breath of room. Maybe they wouldn’t blow this one with 6:12 left. Itty bitty 5-7 Kay Felder, who had been flummoxing the Bulls earlier in the quarter, missed on a drive, LeBron now fearing challenging Butler again. OK, made that one up. But stay with me.
Butler isolated against Richard Jefferson, who has become a local favorite for still being able to jump. But not high enough as Butler rose up into a 15 footer to give the Bulls a 94-88 lead with 5:32 left. Carter-Williams then stripped Jordan McRae on a drive and it was Jimmy pile driving his way back to the basket for a pair of free throws and 96-88 Bulls lead with 5:03 left.
Crisis basically averted and even LeBron with 31 points knew it.
<p.“We cut it to a one-point lead and had a couple of bad offensive possessions and Jimmy hit a couple of shots, and then the rest was history,” said James. “It was over after that.”
The Bulls basically had enough. Taj Gibson, with 18 points making nine of 10 shots, hit a pair of baseline jumpers on Carter-Williams penetrations. And Butler added a driving score and found a loose ball and put it back in to make it a suspenseless and early exit evening in the ‘land.
“When I got here,” added Yoda Dwyane, ‘I told him, ‘You’re an All Star already; what’s next for you? Are you satisfied being just an All Star? Or do you want to go to what the next level is?’ And that next level is something special. He’s been having a hell of a year. He already has all the tools; it’s my job as a teammate to let him know things I see and when it’s time to take over. Coach is going to him, so he puts in the work and we all get a chance to see it. Last five minutes is when you have to do it; last five minutes of the fourth quarter is when the greats separate themselves. Those last five minutes I tell him, ‘Take over. Don’t worry about anything. No matter who’s on the floor we want you to do you.’ And he’s been doing that.”
Oh, has Butler been doing that thing he does, breaking some hearts into a million pieces, though the Cavs will survive this one.
It didn’t seem like the Bulls would, starting the game tentatively as if this were the NBA champions instead of James with Frye, Tristan Thompson, DeAndre Liggins and Jordan McRae. Before you could say, “Where’s Kyrie, Kevin and J.R.,” the Bulls were trailing 15-2.
“They were down players, but they still are a good team,” said Butler. “It’s a long game; (I knew) the game was not over. I knew it was going to turn around, take the right shots. They started going in the fourth quarter.”
<pThe Bulls apparently began to finally look at the backs of the jerseys and the names, a Mirotic three to close out the first quarter for the Bulls and back within 23-16. But that also started a Bulls 13-0 run led by the missing shooting of Mirotic and McDermott—yes, at the same time—that gave the Bulls a lead they’d basically keep the rest of the game. After Frye made a three to stop that run, Mirotic and McDermott combined for the next 14 consecutive Bulls points leading to a 52-46 Bulls halftime lead.
McDermott was quicker to shoot on the catch and Mirotic wasn’t pump faking and dribbling toward Elyria. They combined for 26 of the Bulls 52 first half points. And then when the Cavs closed faster after halftime, Butler and Carter-Williams got nice driving lanes for easier scores. Hey, teamwork!
“We put more pressure on the defense being able to space the floor and they are doing a good job finding us,” said McDermott. “Then the second half you saw Jimmy go off as they were paying more attention to us, so it was good to see. It’s been an emphasis to get us more shots.”
At that point, Mirotic, who’d had apparently arranged for a fishing boat, was working his way through a festival of sushi and interjected from across the room about shots for him, also.
“Yeah, Niko played well, too,” McDermott said and then went on explaining.
McDermott even got James a few times, James preferring to play the lanes for steals and McDermott quickly getting his shot off. Wade seemed a bit slow returning from his knee woes, but he also said he made a conscious decision to shoot less and try to involve McDermott and Mirotic more.
“I decided with that unit to take my foot off the gas a little bit and be a playmaker, try to get those guys going and sacrifice my points because I know the success of this team lies on how good everyone is,” said Wade. “How much confidence Doug has, Niko has, those guys in that unit. I let them know I’m a playmaker, that ‘I’m looking for you guys,’ and they’ve been shooting the ball well and with confidence and that’s what we need.”
It didn’t seem like the Bulls would need Butler this time with that third quarter run by Carter-Williams, his Bulls high, now double figure scoring three of the last four games as a starter for Rajon Rondo. James tweaked his ankle and left the game with the Cavs trailing 78-65 with three minutes left in the third quarter. Then the Cavs began trapping and pressuring, Felder and McRae scoring on layups, whoever they are, and suddenly the Bulls needed Butler badly. The Bulls led 86-84 after a Felder jumper with 9:18 left, a 17-point deficit down to two in eight minutes. And now LeBron was coming back into the game.
How the heck do you win this one?
Call for Jimmy Butler.
“Guy that wears No. 3 on this team came to me and was like, ‘Win the game,’” said Butler. “I guess a switch came on, got a couple of baskets and try to get a couple of stops on the defensive end and I think I did all of that. I think my job is to be aggressive. I knew I was going to have to do that in the fourth, anyway. But with him telling me that, I can’t let D. Wade down; D. Wade has done that for years. It was my time to step up. Guys were playing incredible, Niko, D. Wade, Taj, everyone was contributing.
“I think this is a great start to the new year; let’s go on what they call a winning streak,” said Butler. “We can be really good. But we can’t be happy with these last two wins; we have to continue to build on it.”