Competitive spirit, appreciation for Chicago still evident in Jimmy Butler's return

Competitive spirit, appreciation for Chicago still evident in Jimmy Butler's return

From the deafening cheers in the opening introductions to the uber aggressive way he started the game, there was no way Jimmy Butler’s return to Chicago was just another game.

Hell hath no fury like a player scorned, or something like that. No matter how much he tried to tell everyone it didn’t mean that much to him—and how he wanted that message parroted by his coach and teammates—there’s too much common sense to buy that nonsense.

It isn’t in Butler’s character to swallow such disregard without retribution; It goes against everything we know about the self-made superstar who’s been playing MVP ball for the last two months.

So with eight months to stew after being traded, there was a big soup ready for the Bulls, with Butler ready to serve to anyone who wanted a spoonful.

A big, boiling soup of petty.

Butler scored 38 but when his wing triple at the buzzer bounced off the rim, he ceded the night to one of the players he was traded for, Zach LaVine, who scored the last 11 for the Bulls in the emotionally-charged 114-113 Bulls win Friday night.

Butler had a chance on a previous possession to cement the win, but passed it to his younger teammate, Karl-Anthony Towns, who was wide open for a triple. The possession before, he drove and scored to put his team up one but resisted the urge to do it again.

“I knew everybody thought I wanted to shoot the ball,” Butler said. “I trust KAT (Towns) like I trust myself. I’ve seen him make that shot time and time again. I’ll take that.”

Butler certainly played with a chip on his shoulder but was reflective afterwards, not venting through the frustration of his team blowing a 17-point third quarter lead, allowing the Bulls to crawl back before the end of the period and a dogfight ensued.

He gave frustrated Towns a fist bump in the locker room after the game, saying ‘it’s alright big fella’ before heading to the showers, minutes before addressing the media.

Towns and everybody in that locker room knew how much this game meant to Butler, but he’s having to watch his approach with such fragile players who haven’t yet played big boy basketball yet.

Whether he admits it publicly or not, there’s a part of him that admires the moxie from LaVine, his counterpart who scored 35 and showed no fear down the stretch. His aggressiveness in guarding LaVine on the final Bulls possession resulted in him fouling LaVine on the elbow, with LaVine hitting three free throws to subsequently seal the Bulls win.

“I fouled him. I definitely fouled him,” Butler said. “Stepped up and made the shots. Never want to lose like that but it happens sometimes.”

The petty never left Butler, and in a show of maturity he didn’t let the game get too far away from him. Aside from a few moments, he played in the flow and worked himself into 38 points, seven rebounds, five assists and four steals in 40 minutes.

That explains why he sat at his locker for several minutes before heading to the showers. It was emotional and draining for him to be back, even though he took a trip back to Chicago last week for agent Henry Thomas’ funeral.

Being back around, seeing the video tributes to he and Taj Gibson perhaps softened him up a bit, but he was beyond appreciative and let his tough veneer down for a few minutes afterwards.

“A lot of love and respect,” Butler said. “It’s great to see the fan base come out and see me and Taj play. This is where it all started. And we love them right back.”

The video showed the stages Butler went through as a pro, from the guy who was lucky to take his warmup off to the star who emerged unexpectedly and had his bumps along the way.

 “I saw it,” he said. “I saw myself with no hair. Reminds me never go back to that.”

He blossomed under Tom Thibodeau and grew even more under Fred Hoiberg, who he clashed with at times. Had that relationship been better, one wonders if his departure would’ve been cemented last summer.

But he could only be himself, warts and all, and smiled when speaking of the Bulls and the city of Chicago.

“Everybody knows I’ve got a lot of love for this organization, this city, this fanbase,” he said. “Me and Taj talk about it all the time.”

Bulls Executive Vice-President John Paxson left from the Bulls locker room to congratulate Butler and Taj Gibson after the game, a gesture Butler appreciated given the way things played out last June, when he was traded on draft night.

“That’s the kind of guy Pax is, come in there, say what’s up, check on me,” Butler said. “I’m happy that they’re doing well. They deserve it. The city of Chicago definitely does.”

There didn’t seem to be much love for Bulls general manager Gar Forman, who’s out of town scouting. It’s no secret Butler felt misled in the days leading up to his trade, leading to the shock he felt while overseas when the news broke he’d been moved to the Timberwolves.

Had Forman been in town, it probably wouldn’t have been as pleasant a greeting between the two.

“It’s okay. I don’t need no pats on the ass,” he said. “I don’t need to speak to everybody. I’m fine. I’m content with who I am. I come here to play basketball. I wish them the best of luck.”

He wouldn’t take the bait when it was noted so many superstars had changed addresses over the past several months, although it was no secret he wanted the star talent to join him in Chicago. Instead, he’s had to meet up with Towns and Andrew Wiggins, two talents who clearly don’t have the experience to grasp the importance of every game when it comes to playoff seeding.

“We got guys like that here. KAT, Wigs, Taj, Jamal (Crawford). We’re okay. We can be a lot better,” Butler said. “We don’t play hard all the time. We just made stuff up, can’t have that happen, especially on the road.”

He’ll be a free agent again in two years, now a veteran of the NBA business, knowing what’s ahead and that there’s no guarantees—but even with that acknowledgment, a little petty seemed to flash on his way out.

“I don’t think time really heals it,” he said. “I just feel you have to realize it’s a business. Not all guys stay in one place forever. They moved in a different direction and it’s looking good for them, obviously. I’m happy where I’m at.”

And you wonder if the petty, for all the fun it produced, could’ve been avoided to begin with.

Jabari Parker has bounce and perseverance, but what's in the Chicago native's future?


Jabari Parker has bounce and perseverance, but what's in the Chicago native's future?

Jabari Parker still has bounce.

Either that or he’s gained it after two ACL surgeries that have stalled his once promising career, evidenced by his devastating drive down the middle of the Bulls defense for an unexpected dunk.

Or his flash on the break, finishing with a one-handed slam from Brandon Jennings in the second quarter.

But what does it mean for his future?

Parker played in his first game back in his hometown after returning from injury, his first start of the season came in the absence of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ franchise player.

In 30 minutes, he was three for 10 from the field for six points, four assists and three rebounds in his 20th game of the season as the Bucks held off the Bulls for a 118-105 win at the United Center. For the season, Parker is averaging 11.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in 21.7 minutes while shooting a career-high 51 percent in a contract year as restricted free agency is looming.

Outwardly the Bucks say they’ve been pleased with his play, but the rumors persist this marriage won’t last long.

“(He’s) very good, for someone who’s gone through that twice,” Bucks interim coach Joe Prunty said. “His demeanor, his approach, is very good. He’s worked extremely hard to get back in that position he’s in. Each night we ask a lot of him that we do of everybody else. Scoring is one thing. We need him to rebound. We know he can playmake. Defend. He can play inside, he can play outside. He’s a versatile player.”

Hard to remember, it was Parker who was supposed to be that guy for the Bucks when he was drafted second in 2014, as the argument going into that draft was about Parker or Andrew Wiggins as the best player.

The Chicagoan has had to endure stops and starts since his NBA career began, tearing his ACL 25 games into his rookie campaign. He returned to play 75 games the next season before appearing to blossom even more last year, averaging 20.1 points in the first 50 games.

Then he tore it again right before the All-Star break, halting the Bucks’ vision of having three versatile wings that could cause havoc in Antetokounmpo, Parker and Khris Middleton, an underrated star.

Not only that, it made for awkward contract negotiations as Parker was recovering from surgery before the October deadline and the Bucks reportedly offered a three-year deal around $18 million annually that Parker turned down in the expectation of getting a max deal.

With Antetokounmpo taking yet another step into superstardom, it’s difficult for the Bucks to commit financially that way, especially when Parker doesn’t seem like a natural fit next to Antetokounmpo.

Parker, like many others from his draft class including the Bulls’ Zach LaVine, face an uncertain future with restricted free agency this summer. At least in LaVine’s case, the Bulls have called him one of their building blocks after the Jimmy Butler trade.

For Parker, it’s been reported he was shopped around the trade deadline and nearly moved—which coincided with his season debut Feb. 2. As if he had enough to worry about in terms of getting his body in order and trying to prove where he fit within his own team’s hierarchy, the business of the NBA reared its ugly head.

For the Bucks, their No. 1 priority is Antetokounmpo, as it should be. Parker finding his way amongst the circumstances just made things murkier, just recently crossing the 30-minute threshold against the Clippers where he scored a season-high 20 points.

“With the minute restrictions it’s hard to play,” Prunty said. “Actually I think for him, we’ve struggled with scoring off our bench. He gives us scoring off our bench.”

Friday was only the second time this month where Parker didn’t score in double figures, so even if the future is on his mind, it’s not turning into selfish play—at least offensively.

You can see the missed rotations on defense and note how well the team plays when the ball moves from side to side—a common tacit note of criticism with players like Parker and Carmelo Anthony, guys who need the ball and space on the floor to score.

“Just trying to make it happen,” Parker said. “Coming off the bench, or I’m starting, just trying to do what I can.”

Middleton is a more natural fit next to Antetokounmpo, because of the economy of space he uses when he gets the ball. He rarely uses more than the space around his shadow and has found a way to be efficient around Antetokounmpo.

Parker is more naturally gifted, though, and at least while he’s in Milwaukee, finding ways to play within that simple construct is his best bet.

“This last stretch of games will be important going into the playoffs,” Jennings said. “Finding his rhythm. Me being out there with him, I’m trying to get him going, get him into a better rhythm and things like that. Make the game easier for him.”

Jennings is in his second stint with the Bucks and was in a similar position before his restricted free agency. He and the Bucks couldn’t come to terms, and he wound up being traded to Detroit in a package, which involved sending Middleton among others to Milwaukee.

He knows how thought of the future can play into someone’s mind, let alone the double task of returning from another serious injury.

“It shouldn’t. At my age now (28), I would say it shouldn’t,” Jennings said. “But I know at that age it did for me. From me to him, he gotta look at the big picture. We’re going to the playoffs. We have a chance to get out the first round. You can’t worry about that. That takes care of itself. Once you win, sky’s the limit.”

For his part, Parker and the Bucks are saying the right things, knowing the summer awaits where the true feelings for all will be shown and a future path will be decided.

“No, I don’t think it was. I don’t think it has. My play dictates (this summer),” Parker said. “I think I’ve been doing good so far. I don’t have anything to worry about.”

Bulls Bracket Madness: The best individual seasons in franchise history


Bulls Bracket Madness: The best individual seasons in franchise history

We're trying to figure out the best season in Bulls franchise history, and we want your help in deciding.

Because the Bulls tout the greatest player in basketball history, who could have made up this list by himself, we're giving Michael Jordan his own side of the bracket. But the other side of the bracket is also filled with some pretty memorable and remarkable campaigns.

So read up on each matchup and then have your voice heard by voting on our Twitter page here. Check out the entire bracket in the graphic above.

The Jordan Region

No. 1 Michael Jordan (1995-96) vs. No. 8 Michael Jordan (1990-91)

No. 1 Michael Jordan (1995-96): Jordan was on a mission in his first full season back from retirement. He led the Bulls to a then-record 72 wins with a regular-season MVP award, All-Star MVP and romp through the NBA playoffs, where the Bulls went 15-3 en route to their fourth NBA title. Jordan won his eighth straight scoring title at 30.4 points a game, with nine games where he put up 40 or more. He saved his best for Detroit, scoring 53 with 11 rebounds and six steals in early March. To prove Jordan was getting better as he aged, he shot a career-high 43 percent from 3-point range at age 33.

No. 2 Michael Jordan (1990-91): 1990-91: Jordan's second MVP came with his first NBA title, as he was at the peak of his powers physically combined with the ultimate team success, with the Bulls finally getting past Detroit before defeating the Lakers in the Finals. He shot a career-high 54 percent from the field while averaging 31.5 points, six rebounds and 5.5 assists as he began to fully embrace the triangle offense in Phil Jackson's second season. Jordan had 57 games where he shot better than 50 percent from the field, and was among the league leaders in steals at 2.7 per game while earning his fourth straight All-Defensive First Team honor.

No. 1 Derrick Rose (2010-11) vs. No. 2 Scottie Pippen (1993-94)

No. 1 Derrick Rose (2010-11): Where to begin? The youngest MVP in league history took the league by storm, averaging 25.0 points and 7.7 assists while leading the Bulls to a league-best 62 wins. Rose had been named an All-Star the previous season but took his game to new heights in Year 3, appearing in 81 games, making 128 3-pointers (after making a combined 32 his first two seasons) while helping the Bulls rank first in defensive efficiency under first year head coach Tom Thibodeau. Rose and the Bulls lost in five games to LeBron James and the Miami Heat, with Rose shooting a paltry 35 percent on 24 attempts per game. But his historic season will always go down as one of the franchise’s best, and the only non-Jordan MVP.

No. 2 Scottie Pippen (1993-94): Yeah, well what would Scottie be without MJ? We found out that answer in 1993-94, when Pippen took the reins of the franchise as Jordan rode the Birmingham bus as a minor-league baseball player. Pippen responded with a sensational season, averaging 22.0 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists. He averaged 2.9 steals, shot 49 percent from the field and became a 3-point threat for the first time in his career. He was named First Team All-NBA and All-NBA Defensive First Team, and finished third to Hakeem and The Admiral in MVP voting. He averaged 22.8/8.3/4.6 in the postseason but ultimately proved it was easier to win in the spring with MJ by his side. Still, this individual season was one of the franchise’s best, if not the best. Hardware isn’t everything.