Jimmy Butler stood at the line, showered with adoration from a suddenly engaged United Center crowd, encouraged with letters he probably never imagined possible, in a situation he only dreamed to be in.
Two free throws as twenty thousand chanted "M-V-P" for the man who scored 25 of his 33 points in the second half as he didn't get a moment's rest, the man who had to defend Tim Hardaway on the game's final play as a triple went off the back iron with 2.1 seconds left.
Butler literally willed the Bulls to a 106-104 win over the Atlanta Hawks Saturday afternoon, their third straight victory, pulling them to a three-way tie with the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat for seventh place in the Eastern Conference—with the Bulls holding the tiebreaker over both.
"He was phenomenal," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "We got down 10 and we just kept fighting. Jimmy did everything again. He just found a way to get to the basket, had ten free throws and made them all."
And what's more frightening for the Bulls, this game over the Hawks is the last against a team with a winning record, meaning the season and their playoff chances are in their hands.
Or more specifically, Butler's hands, as long as his legs can hold up playing 42 grueling minutes.
The margins are thin, especially with Dwyane Wade out and the Bulls turning into a different team on the fly. Nikola Mirotic's March to remember made an April fool out of those who expected it to extend, as he hit two of eight from the field—but one was a big triple in the fourth.
Even Butler's last-second heroics was on a play that seemed broken, with Hawks swingman Kent Bazemore doing everything right on the possession: Not giving Butler any airspace, shadowing his right hand and keeping him for going downhill—until he got a little too aggressive on Butler's desperate long two-pointer, fouling him on the arm.
Butler, averaging 27.8 points, 9.3 assists and 6.5 rebounds on 55 percent shooting in his last six games, stepped forward again.
"I wouldn't call it pressure; I always look at it like nobody picked us to be in the playoffs, nobody picked us to win, anyway," Butler said. "I'm just out there playing basketball. I want to win; everybody knows that. I'm just doing what everybody asked me to do, so to speak."
If the free throws are any indication, if the Bulls' comeback from down 89-79 after leading by 10 in the third is another one, the Bulls could be discovering some much needed resolve with six games remaining.
Denzel Valentine hit two triples after the Bulls came out of the subsequent timeout trailing by 10, the last where he passed up kicking it to Butler on the wing on a fast break.
"It shows you what type of kid he is, the confidence he has in himself," Hoiberg said of Valentine, who scored 13 points.
Butler didn't mind the confidence and Hoiberg admired the moxie, as Valentine hit two of the Bulls' 12 triples—a team that's suddenly a 3-point threat after being woefully futile for most of the season.
Continuing a trend after his post-All Star slump, Butler seemingly had enough energy down the stretch to lift the Bulls. Getting to the lane for a layup and then hitting a clear-out triple to tie the game at 102 with two minutes left, it seemed like he was going to have to make every big play late.
"No disrespect to my teammates or anybody, but Fred said, ‘are you tired?' I said no," Butler said. "I want to play, I want to be the reason we win."
With a game against the New Orleans Pelicans Sunday afternoon on the road, the Bulls could be too emotionally spent to capitalize on playing a sub-.500 team. But only this moment was important, consequences be damned.
"I told him "I'm not worried about tomorrow; I'm worried about the right now.' So whatever they need for me to do I'm going out there and doing it," Butler said.
Rajon Rondo again played headliner early while Butler warmed himself into the game, scoring 25 with 11 rebounds on 11 of 18 shooting, with three 3-pointers and seven turnovers in 36 minutes.
The increased trust between the coaching staff and Butler to Rondo is evident, and Rondo has been driving this car as much as Butler through this recent stretch that has many encouraged about an actual playoff appearance.
Losing this game after beating Cleveland would mean nothing, and would symbolize yet another layer of inconsistency in a season full of it.
"We knew this was the biggest game of the season," Rondo said. "These guys have beaten us seven straight times, we wanted to take home court and give the fans something to cheer about."
But there was plenty of reason to believe the Hawks would repeat their performance against the Bulls from months ago, when they came back from a 10-point deficit in the last three minutes to send the Bulls into mini-turmoil.
The Hawks—specifically point guard Dennis Schroder—got into the lane at will, scoring 29 points with six assists and seven rebounds. Hardaway Jr. kept the Hawks in it with 20 points, including a stretch of nine straight in the third when the Bulls were threatening to pull away.
But the game went topsy-turvy on both ends, leading to a Bazemore foul on Butler when it looked like a terrible possession late would lead to yet another disappointing home loss.