Dwyane Wade is most familiar with that rare air colloquially known as the next level, that heady place in the NBA reserved for the truly elite, the stars among stars. Wade’s had his time there, like when he led the league in scoring while being in the top three in voting for MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, that elusive place reserved for those who are joining the best in the game, this season like DeMar DeRozan and Damian Lillard in averaging more than 30 per game.
And now Jimmy Butler, nudging his way into the group with another extraordinary game Saturday in the Bulls 106-95 victory over the Washington Wizards.
Butler had 37 points, nine assists, eight rebounds, three steals and made 14 of 14 free throws. He led the Bulls back from a 12-point first quarter deficit with a big defensive third quarter that disrupted the Wizards and led to eight fast break points in a 28-14 third. The Bulls then cruised home with a double digit lead most of the way. In his last four games, with all double digit free throw totals as only the third Bull ever to do so, Butler is averaging 29 points, seven assists, 5.3 rebounds and four steals.
The Bulls have thus won three of four to get to 6-4 as they now head out for a two-week, six-game road trip mostly in the Western Conference. Butler on the season is up to a career high 24.3 points per game.
“He’s leading us,” said Wade. “He’s doing what me and (Rajon) Rondo came here for him to do, which is turn into a really premier, premier player in this league above just an All Star. He’s really done it out there. This last week he’s been doing everything. He’s defending the other team’s best guy, he’s rebounding, passing, scoring, being aggressive. That’s what you do when you are 27 years old.
“I think for Jimmy he’s going to have (the ball),” said Wade. “We’re going to give it to him down the stretch; he’s going to be the guy. We’re going to put the ball in his hand and he wants to deliver. He’s not going do it every night, but when he doesn’t it’s going to eat at him because he’s that kind of competitive guy. Like we’ve all said when we have a guy who is obviously an All-Star in this league but is right in the prime of his career, my job and Rondo’s job and everyone’s job is to get the best out of him and right now we are seeing how great he can be and he can do that nightly. Just like you look at DeRozan with Toronto, he’s taken that next step. Jimmy is at that point.”
And if Butler truly is with the support of veterans like Rondo and scoring off the bench like 17 points for Nikola Mirotic Saturday, the Bulls could have found that elusive go to guy who is vital for a seriously competitive team. Butler has flirted with the possibility, making the All-Star team the last two seasons. But it’s the leap from there that truly separates a player, when you can lift your team when all around you are stumbling. Butler has done that for the last week, like his eight big points down the stretch in Miami Thursday to save that game, his 39 in trying to match the Hawks despite defeat Wednesday.
“I was decent,” shrugged Butler, who didn’t much want to praise himself. “We won; did what we were supposed to do down the stretch. We didn’t start out the right way, did all right in the end and won the game. I don’t consider that (I was) carrying (the team). I consider that making some shots and getting fouled. I was just doing what my teammates want and needed me to do and to be aggressive. D. Wade always tells me to come out with energy and be aggressive. Just want to play basketball.”
But if Butler demurred about Butler, no one else did in what was a breathtaking array of drives, passes and defensive disruptions.
Wade had 14 points, Taj Gibson 13 and Robin Lopez 10 points and 13 rebounds. John Wall and Bradley Beal were out for Washington, but the Bulls still didn’t respond early and trailed 21-9. They went ahead after one quarter 28-27, fell behind by 10 late in the second quarter and got within 56-53 at halftime. They had one setback when Doug McDermott took a hard fall on a dunk attempt to open the fourth quarter and had to leave the game. Coach Fred Hoiberg said McDermott entered the concussion protocol again after missing a game last week. His status even for the upcoming trip remains uncertain.
But there was nothing uncertain about Butler’s play with a steal from Markieff Morris that Butler turned into a fast break score for Wade and 64-64 tie. After the teams traded scores one more time, it was a 13-2 run for the Bulls with Butler grabbing rebounds away from Wizards big guys, turning another steal into a fast break score, banging his way to the free throw line with Wizards players knocking him to the floor. He’d just jack in the box up, make his free throws and get back in the passing lanes or disrupt the offense with physical defense.
Washington made a mini-run early in the fourth to get within 87-80. Butler then crashed into Marcin Gortat and fell back for a 14 footer for a three-point play. Butler ran into the crowd to exult, followed that with a 21 footer and then saw the Bulls finally pull away on a Wade lob to Mirotic after Butler started the break with an Isaiah Canaan deflection and a Mirotic three for a 99-87 lead with 4:38 left. It would be enough.
“Jimmy was unbelievable tonight,” said Hoiberg. “I knew coming out this is a hard game to play with the travel we had, the back to back, get to Miami two in the morning and we got back yesterday 3:30 in the morning. Your legs are a little jello-y to (start) the game. I thought our guys responded. Halftime we talked about coming out with a big time defensive mentality and we held them to 14 (in the third). It’s a good win.
“If (Jimmy’s) got it going we find a way to put the ball in his hands and let him go out and make plays,” said Hoiberg. “He’s done a phenomenal job of that this year. We’re going to ride him and we certainly did that tonight. That’s what his offseason prepares him for, all the contact he creates. He does a great job of getting himself to the free throw line, 14 more tonight. But tonight it was his overall game, eight rebounds, nine assists, only two turnovers, the steals, just a tremendous all around game for Jimmy.”
Hoiberg also had a nice assist in bringing along Mirotic, who has struggled this season. Hoiberg said he sensed Mirotic feeling stress and had a talk with him before the Miami game.
“It was a good talk,” said Mirotic. “He called me in his office. He told me he just wants to see me happy on the floor, play with confidence. He wants to see smiling. He said he played in this league; he said it’s tough. That he had some of those nights I had like shooting zero for six. He trusted me and he just wants me to have some fun. I really appreciate that and it made me feel better and I had a good game in Miami (five points and four rebounds in the fourth quarter). I had a much better game (Saturday). He gave me that confidence back; it was good for me.”
Mirotic figures to take on an even greater role now with the uncertainty about McDermott with an apparent second concussion. A flagrant foul was called on Morris on the play.
“The first thing I noticed when I ran up on him when he got hit he wasn’t there,” said Gibson. “I had three concussions in my career; it’s something people don’t understand when you hit that floor that floor smacks you pretty hard. When I looked at his eyes I didn’t like the signs I saw. I told him to take his time. But hopefully he’ll be fine because we really need him.”
Hoiberg did say McDermott felt well enough to shoot the free throws, but the Bulls preferred to be cautious and removed him from the game.
By then there was otherwise more relief after another lagging start. Again, the Bulls failed to actively defend the perimeter and Washington broke down the Bulls for close in scores, 16 points in the paint in the first quarter and 36 by halftime. The Wizards got short jump shots off broken pick and roll coverages, though Canaan again did help with some aggressive guard pressure. Michael Carter-Williams probably still is at least two weeks away from a return.
Butler had 13 in the first quarter with seven free throws and then eight more second quarter points. Despite shooting 38 percent, the Bulls trailed by three at halftime and then broke down Washington’s resolve, holding them to a five of 21 shooting in the third. So this time not such a great start, but a magnificent finish and special performance.
Wade afterward chided Butler across the locker room, saying the magic was Butler having borrowed Wade’s tights. “Going to be needing my tights back,” Wade joked. Butler shook his head. No one was getting anything away from him on this night.
“The kid is good and right now he’s just scratching the surface,” said Wade, who knows it when he sees it. “Now it’s just understanding how good he is and really taking that next step to stardom.”</p