Jimmy Butler stood next to his locker, rocked his head back, pausing at the query placed before him following another abnormal performance since his return from a knee injury.
“It’s not the preseason, it’s not early in the season. This is right now,” Butler told CSNChicago.com when asked if he would be playing with this injury if things weren’t so dire at this juncture of the Bulls’ season.
He doesn’t want to hear what his body is telling him, what everybody is seeing, what is becoming more difficult to hide with each passing day.
His left knee strain isn’t right, and it likely won’t be right until the offseason. So as he sighed, moments after falling on the sword in front of the media following the Bulls’ 115-107 loss to the New York Knicks, he wasn’t ready to admit the painful truth:
That it’s very likely he wouldn’t be playing under other circumstances and that he shouldn’t be playing under these circumstances.
“Yeah I would,” said Butler, before it was suggested he’s stubborn, a trait he readily admits on a good day.
“Call it what you want. They got me here for a reason. Not to sit out if I can play.
“I call it, if I step out there on that floor — 100 percent, 60 percent, 25 percent, 10 percent, whatever it is — I gotta go and help my teammates win. The opposing team don’t feel sorry for me. I gotta play. I’m good enough to play right now. I’m going to figure something out.”
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Making an impact hasn’t been a problem, and the numbers have shown a trend that has been undeniable since the All-Star break, when each of the seven games he’s played has been a “recovery” game.
“I think I’m fine,” Butler said, clearly talking through the pain.
Only one game at 50-percent shooting, two games over 20 points and what’s more, the explosive plays he could produce at an instant are nowhere to be found. Scoring 13, 11 and then seven in his last three games aren’t numbers you come to expect from this version of Jimmy Butler.
Not the guy who’s nipping at the heels of Kawhi Leonard for the title of best two-way player in the league, not the guy who’s neck and neck with Indiana’s Paul George for best in the conference.
“I need to do something to get him going,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I need to get him a few easy baskets to get his confidence up. Once that happens, I’m confident Jimmy will take off.”
He can’t take off when his body is grounded.
He’s not visibly limping, but the plays that came so easy before, plays that were bound to give him and this team a boost are no longer go-to’s.
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The play where he plants left from the free-throw line, faking to the top of the key before quickly changing direction to receive a lob pass at the rim for a dunk, likely from the sure passing of Pau Gasol?
Yeah, he tried that a couple times Wednesday, being thwarted by the ground-bound combination of Sasha Vujacic and Jose Calderon.
“You see the way I’ve been playing lately,” Butler said to the media contingent a few minutes earlier. “It’s saddening. It’s piss-poor, it’s terrible. My teammates won’t say it, my coaches won’t say it. I’m a realist. If I continue to play like this, I’m hurting the team.”
Before Butler came to his locker from the showers, Taj Gibson was explaining Butler’s situation from his eyes, that every great player goes through it, that seemingly every player who’s worn a Bulls uniform the last few seasons has had to endure playing through pain — and not feeling like himself through the process.
And what’s more, Butler doesn’t want to disrupt the flow of the offense by forcing it early, so he’s battling rhythm, health and likely, doubt.
“I need to continue to get the ball to guys to get them going,” Butler said. “I think I should be able to score the ball at any time. Right now, pass the ball to guys who are making shots. I have to keep this group of guys in this locker room focused on making the playoffs. Even if I’m not making shots but we’re winning games, I can’t overthink this.”