There’s no greater high for the Bulls than closing out a series with a record-54 point margin for a victory against the Milwaukee Bucks, and no greater subsequent challenge than taking on the four-time MVP in his prime in his home building.
Jimmy Butler will be on the frontline of defenders Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James will see Monday night, and through the duration of the Bulls-Cavs series, which tips off at Quicken Loans Arena.
James is one of the few players Butler can’t outmuscle at his position, while Butler is one of the few who can physically match up with perhaps the most gifted basketball player of his size in NBA history.
Butler sounded like a man who knew the inevitable was coming—that he’d have to be James’ shadow for nearly 48 minutes in the series opener—but resignation doesn’t mean fear from Butler’s end.
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“I like to think I’m big and physical as well. We’ll see,” said Butler, who’s averaging 42.2 minutes in six playoff games this spring. “It’s playoff basketball. It’s never just me guarding him anyways. We’ll see what all this matchup stuff is about. I want to help win, no matter who I’m guarding. Tonight, it’ll probably be LeBron James.”
That means advice can come from any and everybody on guarding James, which is why Derrick Rose won’t publicly divulge what he’ll tell his backcourt mate, if he has specific advice at all.
“I’ll keep that to myself,” Rose said after catching himself.
James averaged 27 points, nine rebounds and 6.3 assists in the Cavaliers’ four-game sweep over the Boston Celtics in the first round.
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“I think he’s focused. I think he’s going to take that challenge,” Rose said. “But who knows what he’s actually going through? When you’re playing against one of the best players in the NBA and you’re coming in this arena knowing how much he did in this arena, I think nerves play a little part to it. But I know during the game, that should be gone. And he should be ready.”
Considering Butler is the Bulls’ leading scorer (24.8 points against Milwaukee), he knows he has to balance the delicate dance between expending his energy chasing James around and making him work on defense. As great as James is, he doesn’t have an endless reservoir of energy, and has appeared to coast on defense at times this season to save his body.
The prospect of matching up with James can lead to the most confusing of answers, even to the most unflappable players.
“Yes, no. I don’t know the answer to that,” said Butler when asked if he needs to focus more on offense. “I think I have to be aggressive but I don’t think I have to put all my energy on the offensive end. I think I have to spend a lot of energy on the defensive end. It’s definitely gonna be a balance tonight and the rest of the series.”