Bulls fans know Jimmy Butler is legit after watching his transformation from a role-playing defensive specialist to a 20 PPG scorer and two-time All-Star. But casual fans tuning in to watch the Olympic competition got a chance to witness all the qualities Butler brings to the table in Team USA’s 113-69 rout of Venezuela on Monday.
Like most of the NBA stars on the roster, Butler has the ability to drive by an initial defender almost any time he wants. But during Team USA’s exhibition schedule, and in the Olympic opener against China, Butler had been content to simply drive into the lane and kick the ball back out to an open 3 point shooter. He’s been the poster child for the type of unselfish play advocated by Mike Krzyzewski and his staff.
In Monday’s win over Venezuela, Butler finally took advantage of some of his scoring chances, knocking down a 3-pointer when the game was still close in the first half, and converting a pair of old-fashioned 3-point plays to help Team USA break the game wide open after intermission. Butler finished with 17 points, second only to Paul George’s 20 for the U.S. side, and his defensive play continues to be outstanding.
With former Bulls’ coach Tom Thibodeau directing the defensive efforts, Team USA has been an active, swarming force, able to keep the opposition from getting good shots with pressure on ballhandlers, and excellent rim protection from big men DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins. Butler has teamed with aggressive wing players like Paul George, DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green to cut off passing lanes and come up with steals to ignite a lethal fastbreak attack.
It’s been kind of funny hearing the familiar sound of Thibodeau’s voice barking out defensive instructions, even with Team USA in total control. After a year away from the court, Thibs is still a perfectionist, and his defense-first philosophy is more important than ever in these Olympics. Without some of the elite NBA scorers like Steph Curry, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook on the roster, this version of the “Dream Team” model is keyed by its work on the defensive end, and Butler fits right in with that approach.
Krzyzewski commented early in training camp that he didn’t know Butler was such a complete player and raved about the work Butler put in to become a star. As the games have gone on, Butler has become a critical part of Team USA’s second unit, with his defensive ability and unselfishness complementing the skills of DeRozan, George and Kyle Lowry.
The Americans will get their toughest test on Wednesday against a rugged Australia squad, led by NBA big men Andrew Bogut and Aron Baynes, along with feisty point guard Matthew Dellavedova and 3-point specialist Patty Mills. The Aussies have already blown out France and Serbia, and they won’t be overpowered inside by Team USA. Former Bulls champion Luc Longley is an assistant coach for Australia, and said his players will get a true measure of just how good they are defensively against a team loaded with NBA All-Stars.
As for the Aussies chances of upsetting the heavily favored Americans, Longley said simply, “It’s always possible, mate. There are no impossibilities in basketball.”
Back to Butler, he’s not all that concerned about how many points he scores during the Olympic tournament, he just wants to come home with a gold medal draped around his neck. Butler’s role with the Bulls will most certainly change in the upcoming season with the addition of 12-time All-Star Dwyane Wade and four-time All-Star Rajon Rondo. The 6-7 swingman will be moving back to his original NBA position at small forward and he’ll be asked to knock down more catch and shoot jumpers than he has in the past.
Butler is only a 33 percent 3-point shooter over his first five seasons in the NBA, but after watching him improve every year he’s been in the league, don’t bet against him becoming a consistent threat from beyond the arc. Right now, it sounds like most of the national experts are dismissing the chances of the Bulls being more than a seventh or eighth seed in the East. But as you watch Jimmy Butler fit in with some of the game’s biggest stars during these Olympics, it’s exciting to think what he’ll be able to do teaming up with Wade, Rondo and some emerging young players next season.