Bulls prepared for LeBron, Cavs' best effort in Game 2

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By Sam Smith | 5.6.2015 | 9:20 a.m.

He’s coming. You can almost hear the roar, the thunder, the seething anticipation. He’s coming. It’s building, growing, coming nearer and nearer. He’s coming. Soon, very soon.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, basically everyone’s favorite to win the Eastern Conference, suddenly trail the Bulls in the conference semifinal with Game 2 in Cleveland 6 p.m. Wednesday. You don’t much recover after losing the first two games at home.

You know he’s coming.

Standing in the way is the guy who just likes to say he’s a kid from Tomball, Texas just trying to fit in. But if the Bulls are to succeed, Jimmy Butler will have to stand out again. Like he has so many times this season.

“I expect him to be aggressive like any other game,” Butler was saying Tuesday after a brief Bulls film session on the inevitable questions about LeBron James. “It’s a playoff atmosphere, so the games are much more important. I prepare myself well throughout this season to prepare myself for whatever I have to deal with guarding him on the offensive end. But it’s going to continue to be a team effort; not just keying on him but keying on their team as a whole.

“I’m confident in my abilities and in my game,” said Butler. “This is the time it needs to show the most; not just in just this series but in the whole playoffs moving forward. I’ve worked hard to get here, worked hard my entire life to be in this position and I will continue to work. Like I said, I’m very confident in my game on both ends of the floor. Defensive wise, I think I’ve studied the numbers and watched enough film that I can guard guys. Offensive wise, I think (trainer) Chris Johnson prepared me incredibly well to perform now in the playoffs and throughout the entire season.

“I’m not supposed to be here, so to tell you the truth I don’t really think about it like that (pressure),” said Butler. “I just think it’s another basketball game. I’m an underdog; I will continue to be. My job is just to play hard and compete like I’ve done my entire life. Hopefully it just helps the Chicago Bulls win a few games.”

With the Bulls 99-92 victory in Game 1, the light fell on the self proclaimed king of Cleveland. If you are the star of stars, your team trailing 0-1, no matter how much talk there was at Cavaliers practice Tuesday about the Derrick Rose to Pau Gasol pick and pop play and likely Tristan Thompson starting instead of Mike Miller, it’s about LeBron.

He said after Game 1 he didn’t play well with 19 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists, three steals and six turnovers. He said he’d have to play better. So, what’s coming, 50 points, 60 points?

James generally isn’t that sort of scorer; after all, teammate Kyrie Irving has the two highest scoring games in the NBA this season. But James is the headliner; if the Cavs lose, it will fall to James. After all, Irving is in the playoffs for the first time. The Cavs are troubled with Kevin Love out injured and J.R. Smith serving the final game of a suspension. He’ll return Friday when the series shifts to the United Center.

And though the Cavaliers came charging back from a 16-point deficit, tied the game and were within one score in the fourth quarter, it was the Bulls, especially Butler late, making the big plays while it was James failing, key turnovers, missed shots.

It happens; but twice?

It’s unexpected in the NBA, though unexpected has been a life story for Jimmy Butler.

James famously was born to a teenage mother who struggled to survive, moving from one bad neighborhood to the next, LeBron at one point moving in with a coach’s family for safety and succor. Those experiences harden someone for the tough days ahead. What is a game when life was like that?

And so you can understand Jimmy Butler a little better.

He was forced out of his home as a teenager, occasionally homeless or bunking in through the kindness of strangers, junior college, eventually off to Milwaukee, which he’d barely heard of, unheralded in college as he was in high school, working, working, working as LeBron did.

And now they meet as equal as one can be with the league’s chosen one.

Maybe not to the same peaks, but traveling the same road of hard knocks.

“Superstar,” Butler laughed when a reporter suggested he’d gotten there. “I don’t want to hear none of that. I just want to be a basketball player. I don’t worry about what people say. I control what I can. I guess I’ve gained a lot of respect around the league. I’m not going to knock that. But I think superstar is a push. I guess I was an All-Star this year, but I just want to play the game. I want to help us win. I don’t care what people label me as; never will care. Winning speaks for itself.”

Butler is taking on the challenge of James and had a good Game 1, 20 points, six assists and five rebounds, a fabulous defensive come-from-behind save on Irving in the fourth quarter, and then an important three pointer and the effective closing shot on a driving banker. All the while chasing and harassing and trying to deny and bother James. James didn’t take the same challenge as the Cavs save him on defense as he mostly covered the Bulls’ weakest offensive players in Game 1, both to save energy and try to get steals for fast breaks.

The Bulls committed just 10 turnovers and the Cavs had two points on fast breaks.

But everyone knows a storm named LeBron is coming now. It has to be.

Jimmy Butler has faced this kind of thing before, more in daily hardship than basketball pressure. It steels you. Not that the games are irrelevant; it’s his job and passion. But you build an attitude from adversity that prepares you for the challenges ahead.

Butler probably will receive the NBA’s Most Improved Player award later this week when the Bulls return home for Games 3 and 4. It’s another acknowledgement of where he has come from, as far in a basketball journey as the most unlikely stories in the game. It provides the backdrop for the sort of game Butler and the Bulls will see from James and the Cavaliers Wednesday, desperate and intense.

Jimmy Butler doesn’t back off from any of that because he could have, probably should have and never did.

“Confidence, confidence is always the most important thing,” said Butler. When you think you can do something you can. I wasn’t as confident in the past like I am now. I know and I think I can do things at a high level and at an incredible rate. As long as my confidence stays high, I know I’ll continue to be a decent player.

“It comes from your work,” explained Butler. “I do it day in and day out; at night I get in extra shots and watch film. Confidence is not built overnight, but in what you do every single day. I’ve been doing this every single day since I don’t know when. I’ll continue to be confident.

“As long as we focus on us more than them we’ll be fine,” Butler added. “I think people tend to put too much emphasis on the Cleveland Cavaliers; we can’t do that.

We have to focus on the Chicago Bulls. What we are doing on both ends is going to cause us to win games more than stopping what they are doing.”

There didn’t seem to be panic among the Cavs as it is a seven-game series. But James speaking with media Tuesday seemed to tweak coach David Blatt, noting his “rookie” status, which generally makes Blatt blanche and pointing to the game plan being awry in Game 1. But the coach is never fully to blame instead of the game’s best.

The Cavs likely will come out harder with a more physical front line. That won’t put as much pressure on Joakim Noah to chase to the three-point line, but Noah has been in a funk with a dizzying one for 12 on free throws in the playoffs. Will the Cavs foul him?

“With Jo, he’s giving us what he’s got,” said Derrick Rose. “He’s been though a lot. With a big guy with injury it takes a lot; just his energy, his presence on the team is huge for us because he’s a hell of a character, hell of a teammate, hell of a person. He’ll do anything to win. It kind of rubs off on people.”

The Bulls started fast in Game 1, and that will be crucial again.

“We (were) tired of playing from behind,” Butler noted. “If we try to play with the lead and we can hold the lead we’ll win; that’s the way we are thinking now. Just coming out and being the aggressor.”

The Bulls have issues to clean up as well, though the way the playoffs generally go the losing team changes first and then gets a reaction. The Bulls should counter that, perhaps be more aggressive trapping and making Irving work coming out of the backcourt as he is their primary scorer other than James. Irving took advantage of the Bulls lax pick and roll defense getting into the paint. Perhaps the Bulls hedge. Local media in Cleveland has challenged the Cavs to stop that Rose/Gasol play. Though it should open up corner and wing shooters for the Bulls if they are sharp moving the ball with Cavs’ help on Gasol. It’s also likely the Cavs will go to James in the post, inviting the Bulls to help, which could open three-point shooting. That’s been the Cavs’ best weapon against the Bulls this season.

So again it comes to Butler to hold off the advance of the king on his court. Better not to double team and leave open those shooters. But is that asking too much of Butler? James is the giant in the NBA at maybe 6-8 and 260, though Butler is about 6-7 and 235. He helped the Bulls force many more contested shots than the generally indifferent Cavs defenders. He doesn’t give in.

“Of course it’s fun,” said Butler. “This is what you live for, to go up against the best in the playoffs. On the road, backs against the wall. It’s basketball. Guys know how to play the game the right way: You pass the ball to the guy who is open, you guard, you defend and when it’s your shot you take it.

“I guess he thought he didn’t play well,” Butler said of James. “He did miss shots he normally makes; I don’t feel like I played too well, either. I feel like I missed a lot shots I normally make. He’ll be putting up shots; I’ll be putting up shots. Prepare myself as I have all year, get up some shots, watch film and compete, make everything tough for him. We’ll both be ready to go tomorrow. But I just happen to believe this team is going to get the job done.”

You know he’s coming.

Jimmy Butler will be there. He’s always survived when no one much expected.