It didn’t seem very promising. Dwyane Wade to rest was missing Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers, the second of a back to back after Wade’s brilliant 28-point game Saturday was squandered in a last minute loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. Rajon Rondo was out on the court testing his sore ankle to see if he could play. And it was raining in Los Angeles. Yes, sometimes when it rains it pours, man, it pours.
So Jimmy Butler straightened his shoulders and fixed his eyes on Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg.
“Coach,” Butler said, “I’m going for 40 points tonight.”
Once that might have been out of hubris or perhaps ego or insecurity. It’s now clearly out of responsibility.
“Jimmy came to me before the game and said; ‘C’mon, let’s get it done,’” said Taj Gibson. “I saw it in his eyes, the desperation, the understanding we have to win this game, a big game for us on a back to back after losing a tough one, which we thought we should have won. I saw it in his eyes; he was intense. He’s showing more leadership day by day.”
And then Butler showed his back is strong as well as the Bulls climbed on it and Butler carried the Bulls to a 118-110 victory over an aggressive, young Lakers team. Butler scored a season high 40 points with seven rebounds and six assists. He shot 14 of 23—this, mind you, without Wade and the defense concentrating on Butler—and 12 of 14 on free throws. And then in his 39th minute on the floor after playing 38 minutes in Saturday’s disappointing loss, Butler made what Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said was the biggest play of the game, winning a jump ball from Lakers forward Julius Randle, who is about three inches taller.
Butler directed the tip to Nikola Mirotic with the Lakers having cut a 15-point Bulls lead to five in less than four minutes. Butler then took the pass back, dribbled left, was met by a pair of Lakers’ defenders and passed back to Rondo for a floater to effectively end the drama.
“I’m athletic,” Butler said with a smile. “You didn’t know I had that still. I get up a little bit; it’s tough. He was up there with me, but I got that.”
It was, of course, one play. But the fortitude and resolve Butler showed in first grabbing the D’Angelo Russell miss at that crucial moment and then fighting on the floor for it and then virtually willing himself to win the jump showed that rare quality among the truly great players that they are not going to let their team lose the game.
“He is playing with a tremendous amount of confidence,” said Hoiberg. “That’s where it starts. Jimmy thinks every time he steps on the floor he’s the best player out there and more often than not he’s right.”
Go, Jimmy go.
The Bulls enjoyed a lot of excellent efforts in a fast paced, wide open game practiced now by the Lakers, not so much concerned with stopping anyone as getting back to shoot quickly. Isaiah Canaan off the bench had 17 points with a pair of fourth quarter threes. Nikola Mirotic starting at small forward with Wade out had 15 points and a career high 15 rebounds. Gibson also had 15 points with seven rebounds and Robin Lopez had 12 points and 11 rebounds. Hoiberg said he’d take those two in a toughness battle over any other two front court players in the NBA. Rondo had four points, nine rebounds and 12 assists as the Bulls got back to ball movement with 27 assists. The Bulls had a commanding 56-37 rebounding lead and shot 51.7 percent.
More importantly, it was the Bulls third win in four games on this Western Conference road trip, the victories all over teams with winning records at the time and the lone loss to a Clippers team with the league’s best record. And a disputed game with a crucial foul call with 20 seconds left in a two-point game. The NBA in its post game report labeled the call correct, though added the officials missed a travel right before the controversial play that led to the ejection of Hoiberg.
The Bulls are 9-5 and play in Denver Tuesday and close the trip Friday in Philadelphia.
We can continue to say it’s a small sample, though now almost 20 percent into the season. No one much knew what to make of this Bulls team with nine new players and the addition of 30-plus veterans like Wade and Rondo. But it seems clear now this is a serious team that will compete and isn’t likely to be out of many games against any team. It seems to have a firmness of intention and spirit that isn’t common or simple to construct. There’s a will to compete complemented by the talent.
“We try to set the tone,” said Gibson. “Try to be top five in defense and defensive rebounding and you have a chance every night; we’ve been doing the job on the boards and giving ourselves second chances and it’s been great. That’s how we used to be before a lot of injuries and a lot of players being moved; I love it.”
And the Bulls have to love what they are seeing from Butler.
It was clear from the start as he was driving into Lakers’ defenders to start the game like he was a bumper car. Butler had 13 first quarter points with seven of eight free throws, though the Lakers tied the game at 30 after one quarter following a 15-7 Bulls start. This Lakers’ team still lacks a star player. But they play fast under new coach Luke Walton with quick draw shooting from Lou Williams and Nick Young, the latter pretty much on the receiving end of some Butler trash talking much of the game.
The Lakers bolted out to a 44-34 lead in the second quarter against a group of five Bulls reserves. With Doug McDermott and Michael Carter-Williams still out and Wade joining them, the roster thinned some. Hoiberg got Butler and Mirotic back at that point. Larry Nance Jr.’s scoring inside was a problem, but Lopez steadied things along with rookie Denzel Valentine’s best game of the season with eight second quarter points. The Bulls led 62-61 at half.
“I told (the reserves) before the game, ‘Get your shots up; we have a lot of bodies down, it’s time to step up. You’re not a rookie anymore. This is about being a man and being ready. This is going to make you better at the end of the year.’ I told a lot of guys keep your head up,” Gibson related. “It was great, especially Niko being aggressive on the offensive side and defensive side. He has to get a lot of credit the way he rebounded the ball and started out playing the three running around chasing Nick Young and those guys; it was great to have Bobby (Portis) and those guys understand playing lights out, playing free.”
The Bulls came back from a 78-71 third quarter deficit in a terrific sequence with a Canaan three off a Butler drive and kick, Butler with a fierce follow shot through two Lakers on a Canaan miss and Gibson taking a lob from Rondo behind his head and slamming. But still it was mostly Butler hammering his way to the basket, another dozen points in the third quarter for a 90-85 Bulls lead. Butler would get those 40 without a three pointer and one attempt.
Then in the fourth quarter, the Bulls began to pull away. Mirotic was impressive with shooting, passing and rebounding, Canaan made the two threes and the Bulls led 111-96 with 4:24 left. They took a breath and Young and Russell made threes amidst four Bulls turnovers, the last a five-second inbounds violation with 58.2 seconds left. Russell took the three to try to make it a two-point game. Butler got the ball, was tied up by the taller Randle and simply decided he was not letting go of this game.
“I just felt like that was what my team was going to need from me, to tell you the truth,” said Butler about his big game. “For me to be aggressive, to put the ball in the basket. With our second leading scorer out I had to pick up the pace a little bit. That was my mindset, play defense as well, but go out and put the ball in the hole.
“I work so hard in the summer I know what I am capable of,” Butler added. “I know every night is not going to be a great shooting night, but if it is a great shooting night like it was tonight and you are guarding and passing the ball and rebounding, it all looks good. You have to find multiple ways to change the game even when you don’t score 40. That’s the way I have to think (of best player on the court). If I don’t, then I look at it as being just another player out there. My teammates tell me to play like that, to think like that.”
He’s making believers of the NBA.