MILWAUKEE — Whether it was to someone in particular, no one in particular or said in pseudo-frustration, Jimmy Butler yelled out his feelings in a building he once called home:
“Give me the ball, and get the (bleep) out of the way!”
Walking off the floor, having created most of the critical scores late in a game that still leaves the Bulls, at best, in critical condition in the Eastern Conference playoff race, Butler’s importance in the Bulls’ 102-98 win over the pesky Milwaukee Bucks cannot be overstated.
On a night where he missed just one shot in a 25-point, eight-assist and five-rebound performance, one can be entitled to a bit of hubris, moments after an emotional win that kept the Bulls two games behind the Indiana Pacers with five games to play.
One of those shots was a mid-range jumper where the Bucks’ defense — like the Pacers’ defense last Tuesday — didn’t switch on the screen-roll with Butler as a ballhandler with 51.9 seconds left, stretching the lead to 97-93.
“Not really, tell you the truth I was looking to pass,” he said. “I was. He showed, they didn’t switch like we thought they would, I rose up and knocked it down.”
It comes with the territory, Butler says, as a player with a max contract on a team that entered the season with aspirations on being more than a fringe playoff team.
“I think I kind of have to do it now,” Butler said. “Everybody looks to me to do so, with the deal I just signed and being one of the better players on this team. Fred (Hoiberg) is putting the ball in my hands as of late, he knows I’ll make the right decision, whether to shoot or pass the ball.”
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Like Saturday night’s game against the Detroit Pistons, the ball was in Butler’s hands late as the Bulls were again without Derrick Rose (elbow), and there was also no Taj Gibson (ribs) to provide rebounding, interior defense and emotional leadership.
Unlike Saturday, shots fell late and Butler showed enough trust in his teammates to make shots when the Bucks were charging back from an 18-point deficit.
The fine line between the Bulls going away from Hoiberg’s ball-movement system and having subsequent questions about a stagnant offense compared to the coach letting his best players make decisions in late-game situations can be separated by Nikola Mirotic (19 points, six rebounds) cutting for a layup off a pass from Pau Gasol to restore a four-point lead and Justin Holiday hitting a corner jumper off a pass from Butler late in the shot clock, giving the Bulls a 95-91 lead with 1:17 left.
“He wants the ball in his hands, and he’s done a great job for us closing out games,” Hoiberg said. “With a low-possession game like that, Jimmy’s the guy with the ball in his hands making the right play.”
Sometimes, narratives can change in the blink of an eye, even if the two extremes are just that — extremes.
“I was hoping he did (shoot),” Butler said. “I thought about throwing it to him because I threw him a layup earlier and he missed it. It angered me. But that’s my guy, and I have a lot of trust in him. He can shoot the ball.”
After struggling in that department for most of the day, the Bulls had contributions from Mirotic and Doug McDermott, guys who were as visible as Casper the Friendly Ghost on Saturday night, as the Bulls led 50-32 with 3:24 left in the first half.
At one point, when McDermott (seven points) scored on a fast break using some dexterity on the way to a three-point play, Gasol ran off the bench and halfway down the baseline to congratulate him.
“I was really encouraged with the way we started the game,” Hoiberg said. “That’s how we’re supposed to play, getting out on the break. We had great pace, had the ball moving.”
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Then disaster nearly occurred as the one team the Bulls will face in a 14-day span with nothing to play for wanted to bring the Bulls to that level, starting a rousing comeback in the third quarter.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (34 points) and Chicago native Jabari Parker (24 points, 11 rebounds) led the way, as the two were initially the only Bucks to score in the first quarter with 24 points and decided to take matters back in that direction after halftime.
Antetokounmpo is a matchup problem on a good day, but since Jason Kidd has inserted him as point guard, he’s turned into a nightmare. He easily cut into the teeth of the Bulls’ defense with long-striding layups and passes to bigs inside on the way to nine assists.
Midway through the third quarter the lead was all the way down to 61-56 and momentum had clearly shifted. Butler scored nine in the quarter, and Aaron Brooks had a couple circus layups to keep the lead at 10 headed to the fourth quarter.
“The third quarter, we’ve got to find a way to come out and bury a team when you’ve got them down,” Hoiberg said.
They didn’t, and things got more dicey in the fourth, until Butler was sicced on Antetokounmpo three minutes into the fourth and the Bucks had pulled to within one.
“We had to get Jimmy onto him,” Hoiberg said. “He had some good energy down the stretch to guard Giannis. He did a great job going straight up.”
Antetokounmpo hit one shot — a meaningless triple when the game was already decided, a game Butler put his personal stamp on, even though they’re still in the NBA’s version of intensive care.
“A win is a win, home or away, by how many points,” Butler said. “They don’t go by points when you’re looking at the eighth seed. It’s all about winning and losing. If we continue to win, hopefully we’ll find ourselves there.”