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.