Jimmy Butler was absolutely, positively, impressively Jordanesque Sunday when he carried the Bulls with a franchise record 40 second half points to a 115-113 comeback victory over the Toronto Raptors.
I’ll get to later all the statistics and records that usually come first in these summations.
Those of us who saw Jordan from the early days through six championships don’t make these comparisons lightly, and they often are made that way. But they generally miss the point. Although Jordan could be as good as it gets at theater, drama and vanity, imitating Jordan wasn’t about flamboyant dunks with your tongue hanging out or extraordinary scoring totals.
They were pleasing appendages, but replicating Michael Jordan was seizing the moment during the most fierce competition, making play after play not only when the opponent knows it’s coming but also when your team needs it most.
Like when Butler in the face of Toronto’s best defender, DeMarre Carroll, rose and made an isolation face up three pointer with 30.9 seconds left to give the Bulls a 112-111 lead, their first lead since early in the second quarter;
Like when after Toronto took a 103-91 lead with six minutes remaining, Butler came out of a Bulls timeout against the expectant Raptors, cut to the basket and took a terrific pass from Nikola Mirotic for a layup;
Like Butler’s pull up left wing bank shot with 4:34 remaining to bring the Bulls within 103-98, the Bulls defense not so good and allowing the Raptors to continue to score.
This is an excellent Raptors team, now 21-14 while the Bulls with their fourth consecutive victory moved to 20-12. Like the very good Detroit Pistons team in 1987 when I saw Jordan do this one time, 61 points in an overtime win in Detroit, holding off Isiah Thomas’s 31 points and 18 assists.
You do these things in the playoffs and they become legendary, like Jordan’s shrug with his six three pointers in the 1992 Finals, or his 38 points and winning three pointer when he was ill in the 1997 Finals or Jordan’s farewell pose winner in the 1998 Finals. You do these things in the regular season and they become sweet memories. You do them often enough with dominant dedication and fortitude you become the greatest. Butler, as he knows, is far from that.
>[?“Do not compare me to him,” he said after the game when WGN’s Dan Roan asked Butler about breaking Jordan’s second half scoring record as Butler had 42 points overall despite a brutal first half that included having to get stitched up from a cut lip. “I don’t want to be compared to him. I just want to be me.”
That’s pretty darned good these days, like with Butler’s pull up three on top of the floor against Raptors scoring star DeMar DeRozan, who led Toronto with 24 points. That brought the Bulls within 105-103 with 2:38 left and a game that seemed lost for sure for three quarters suddenly became there for the taking by the team with the best player.
The Bulls had him.
“It was an unbelievable performance by Jimmy,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “He just made play after play. He was unbelievable with the ball in his hands, hitting fade away shots, the last three, getting himself to the free throw line. It’s the best performance I’ve seen coaching.”
Like after the Raptors kept scoring, now 109-105 with their third basket in their last four possessions. Butler, with the Bulls trying to hide nothing by now, dribbling out of the backcourt, taking a screen from Pau Gasol, basically almost waiting for Carroll to catch up—that’s what you call the zone—and finishing a left handed layup to get the Bulls within 109-107 with 1:42 left.
“Dominant, outstanding,” gushed Gasol. “It was just an incredible performance, the way he carried the load offensively. It’s not just that he scored a lot of points. He did it in a very efficient way (15 of 23 and 10 of 11 on free throws). And he did it in a way that was critical for us to win the ball game. It’s not that you’re up 20 and suddenly you get hot, you make shots, shoot a low percentage and still score a lot of points. He did it in a way that was critical for us.”
Like drawing the defense after Kyle Lowry missed a pressured three pointer against E’Twaun Moore, playing with Derrick Rose missing his third straight game with hamstring and knee soreness. Hoiberg said Rose will have an MRI Monday, but Rose said it was more precautionary, that he felt good and hoped to play Tuesday against Milwaukee.
There was the opportunistic Moore as Butler had five Raptors watching him now, going over Lowry and DeRozan for a rebound on the Butler and short push shot with 58 seconds left to tie the game at 109.
Lowry came back with a 16 footer with 40.9 seconds left that gave Toronto the lead. But then came Butler’s most unlikely and contested three that under the pressure of a miss probably ends the game for the Bulls. And not only because Butler came into the game shooting 31.8 percent on threes, eighth on the team in three-point percentage.
Jordan wasn’t a good three-point shooter, 32.7 percent for his career and 27 percent during that 1991-92 season when Jordan lit up the Trailblazers in Game 1 and made the statement for the Bulls with that opening three-point barrage.
That’s what Jordan did, and why there is no next Jordan.
There are players who will have days or weeks or even months like Jordan, like Butler did Sunday in Toronto, and how he as a Jordan brand endorser knows well.
“I’ve go to go down there and score at times,” said Butler. “But I have to stop missing free throws late.”
Butler missed one of two with 4.6 seconds left for what became the final margin, and which actually gave the Raptors a chance to win the game at the buzzer, which would have ruined this scrip. But Jordan missed them also, big ones though few remember. It’s the confidence and commitment not to retreat. They blame you when you fail. As Jordan famously said, he succeeded because he failed so many times. He demanded to take the responsibility as Butler did in Toronto.
Toronto was out of timeouts and DeRozan actually got off a good shot at the end to win that spun around the rim and out.
“I’m just happy we won, to tell the truth,” said Butler. “I don’t want to be compared to (Jordan) because you see what he’s done for this game. I’m trying, but nowhere near the same player. Like I said, I’m just happy we got the win, points or no points we’re leaving here with a W.”
It didn’t come without defense as well. The Bulls didn’t offer much most of the game, but when it mattered in the end they did.
After Butler’s go ahead three with 30.9 seconds left, Moore picked up a driving Lowry flying out of the backcourt on a switch and forced his layup attempt too hard. Gasol got the rebound and made one of two free throws for a 113-111 Bulls lead with 24.1 seconds left.
Toronto then came out of its final timeout and positioned DeRozan with 24 points on the right wing against Tony Snell. The athletic DeRozan beat Snell going left to the basket. But Gasol slid over to help and blocked the attempt, Gasol’s fourth block in a terrific game to go along with 19 points, 13 rebounds and six assists. Snell got the rebound and passed to Taj Gibson, who also made one of two free throws for a 114-111 Bulls lead with 15.8 seconds left.
Still plenty of time for overtimes.
The Raptors got within one on a put back dunk from Jonas Valanciunas after a Carroll missed three to tie with 5.7 seconds remaining. Butler called for the inbound pass to shoot the last free throws, making one for that final margin.
It also was a sweet scene after DeRozan’s shot spun tantalizingly around and out.
Gasol grabbed Butler walking by, clearly exhausted by his commanding effort, and Pau embraced him in a hug, the championship veteran recognizing the significance and substance of the extraordinary effort. Gasol wasn’t a Laker yet when Kobe Bryant had 81 points against these same Raptors, though Gasol knows greatness up close.
Gibson then walked in and then Mirotic and Moore as those five on the court shared a group embrace for not only what they witnessed but to show the appreciation for a teammate. Then the players on the bench came over to join in and Rose met Gibson with a gleeful body bump as Butler was called away for the post game interview with WGN-TV.
“Obviously, scoring 40 in the half, it’s something you don’t see every day, so I’m just proud of him,” said Gasol. “I’m happy for him. I’m happy that the team won and reacted the way we did and kept fighting. We’re not going to throw fireworks; we haven’t won a championship or gotten close yet, but we’re on the right path. Now we’re competing. Since the Oklahoma City game, we’re competing every night and we’re giving ourselves a chance every night and that’s what we need to continue to do in order for us to have a chance at the end of the year.
“(Jimmy) played an incredible second half for our team, and also chasing around DeRozan, playing defensively at a high level, and getting Kyle too, at times. So, he did it on both ends,” said Gasol. “To me that’s even more impressive, that you’re not guarding a non-threat offensively.”
That, too, was the other element, less featured and highlighted if, however, understood. Jordan took on the other team’s principal threat because he knew his scoring no matter how vital was never enough. If it was about winning the game, it was doing everything you could. So Jordan got on Thomas when Jordan also scored 61 points, or chased around Mark Price when needed when he also scored 69 points against the Cavaliers.
“Time after time and it wasn’t just one way,” noted Hoiberg. “He was splitting a trap, he got downhill. He took what the defense gave him. If they went under (screens) he pulled up and shot it. I thought he did a really good job drawing contact. We obviously needed every one of them. The confidence the team had in him in those plays, it was great. It was a big win for us, to be down going into the fourth the way we were it wasn’t looking good. But our guys kept with it, got some big stops down the stretch and rebounded the ball better.
“It was a very important week for us,” said Hoiberg of the Bulls starting a stretch of 14 of 20 on the road. “The first thing was to protect our home court; we had three good wins. That Indiana game wasn’t looking too good there at the end. We found a way to pull that one out and the same thing with today’s game. Now we have to go back home for a couple and hopefully build off this, play well and get our confidence up and hopefully get a couple of guys healthy. That would help us right now.”
Yes, it is about the season, always about the season. Though there can be one shining moment without the nets being cut down.
The irony for Butler is it perhaps was produced out of anger as well, which actually is a quality that maybe most fueled Jordan.
Enough with the Jordan comparisons, I know, but for one day have patience. Jordan did this for more than a decade. That’s what greatness is truly about, consistency, performing at that level every time, not only because your team needs it, but because the audience expects it and most of all you demand it of yourself. That’s the drive that makes rare air.
It defines extraordinary when ordinary is expected.
Butler and the Bulls were pretty ordinary for that first half in Toronto, a 17-10 Bulls start to the game, Toronto back with 10 straight points to take a lead and then tied at 26 after one quarter.
This after three consecutive high level performances wasn’t one to write back to the United States for the Bulls reserves. They were outscored by Toronto’s 27-20, and pretty much as soon as they took over in the second quarter the Raptors broke open the game in their favor. They began to pressure the Bulls into turnovers and dominated the offensive boards, the Raptors with 22 points on second chance points and turnovers by halftime. Toronto led 60-48 in one of the Bulls poorest defensive halves of the season and it seemed apparent the Raptors would avenge their loss in Chicago last week.
Butler had two points on one of four shooting in a poor half, even on defense as he was being dominated by DeRozan with 17 halftime points. But they made Jimmy mad. Jimmy doesn’t like being hit in the face. Being hit in the face makes Jimmy take notice.
“It messed my swag up, so I can’t go on a date for a while,” Butler laughed afterward. “I was mad. But I just came out and was aggressive. It had nothing to do with him punching me in the mouth.”
That was with 4:36 in the first half and the Bulls trailing 48-38. Carroll going up for a layup accidently elbowed Butler in the lip, drawing blood. Butler reacted angrily, walking toward Carroll and being held back. He was taken to the locker room for get stitched. Butler did return for a last play of the first half.
“We went back in the locker room and I told my guys I’m going to come out being aggressive,” said Butler. “They got me the ball, set great screens and I finished a couple at the rim. It helps that I’ve got shooters on the floor. Nobody helps off them. Pau set great screens, popping; you’ve got to guard him. When you’ve got to guard all five people on the floor I get a couple of layups.”
Perhaps, though that might have been the case if Butler were looking for them.
No one’s really ever seen Butler play like he did in the second half Sunday.
He came out and the steam coming out of his ears and the fire in his eyes wasn’t noticeable, but it was there. Jordan famously over the years built up these challenges and slights, eventually of his own making as opponents began to step out of the way. But Butler’s force was with him as he stepped on the floor to start the second half.
He was vocal in the huddle to start, expressive as he talked to Gasol and then Gibson. It was a man on his mission.
The Bulls got the ball after losing the opening tap. Kirk Hinrich starting for Rose dribbled lazily out of the backcourt, and the start seemed to be for a Gasol screen. But Butler stepped out toward Hinrich and called for the ball.
Out of my way!
Butler squared up on Carroll, the Raptors big defensive free agent acquisition last summer from Atlanta, and drove past him and to the basket for a score.
It was on!
Butler took the ball up court himself the next possession and passed to Gasol for a jumper that was good and scored on a drive and a jumper the next two Bulls possessions. Then after a Hinrich jumper as he was three of four, Butler, the anger bubbling over like a boiling pot, drove and was fouled. He hit a jumper, drove again, posted and scored and was fouled, drove and was fouled. Still, the Bulls, even with Butler scoring 21 points in the quarter, could not catch the Raptors. The Bulls did get within 79-75, but Toronto got a pair of threes and let 87-81 going into the fourth quarter.
“I was mad,” said Buter. “But I just came out and was just aggressive after that.”
The Raptors are going to be a competitor in the Eastern Conference this season, and they seemed to regain control to start the fourth with Butler and Gibson playing with reserves. Toronto had a 9-4 start and with Lowry and Luis Scola, who each had 22 points, slicing though the Bulls fortifications it looked like just as asterisk for Butler, lots of points and little to show. Scola’s three with six minutes left made it 103-91 for Toronto.
“We tried everybody and everything and couldn’t get him stopped,” said Toronto coach Dwane Casey.
Jimmy would not be held back.
His 40 points topped Jordan’s 39 in the second half against Milwaukee in 1989. Butler was 14 of 19 in the second half, 10 of 11 on free throws with four assists and a steal that has him the league leader at 40 games straight with a steal.
He stole some hearts this time.
Earlier the story was Rose missing a third straight game with a hamstring issue and Hoiberg saying Rose would have an MRI Monday as he reported some knee soreness in the right knee where he had meniscus surgery last year.
Rose said it was more precaution.
“Just overworked myself,” said Rose. “Got to figure out the days where I am going to sit. The games I had rolling (averaging 21.3 the previous three games), I tried to give a little more than I had and it backfired on me. Tomorrow I’ll get the MRI and I know everything is going to be fine; it’s more reassurance. Just can’t push off the way I want to. Just have to work out my schedule a little better. Three straight off days instead of sitting out and getting recovery (I worked out). The way I was playing I didn’t want to miss any games or go out there and not be prepared, but it backfired a little bit.”
Rose said he hopes to play Tuesday against Milwaukee and Joakim Noah will have his shoulder injury evaluated Monday and could return soon.
Though Sunday was for Jimmy Butler, a day to remember.