There's little debate Jimmy Butler is well on his way to becoming an NBA superstar, if he's not there already. The sixth-year shooting guard is 10th in scoring, will be headed to his third straight All-Star Game in two months, and is one of the league's top two-way players. But there's a part to Butler's game that's been as good as ever over the last month or so that shows he may be taking the next step in his incredible career progression.
Butler was dominant from start to finish on Monday night, pouring in a season-high 52 points on 15 of 24 shooting while adding 12 rebounds and six assists in a crucial win for the Bulls, who came in losers of three straight. Impressive as Butler was on both ends of the floor (three steals and a block) and at the free-throw line (21-for-22) the Bulls, playing without Dwyane Wade, still found themselves in a tight game down the stretch.
That's when Butler came through in the clutch. Literally. The NBA defines "clutch" as plays that occur in the fourth quarter or overtime, with less than 5 minutes remaining, and neither team ahead by more than five points. It's not an exact measurement of what truly constitutes a "clutch" player, but it's what they use.
On Monday night Butler, in the "clutch," went 5-for-6 from the field and hit all five free-throw attempts, finishing with 15 points in a little more than four game minutes. The Bulls were +9 in the clutch with Butler on the floor, and +11 after he returned to the game with 6:24 remaining. It'd be too easy to make a declarative statement about how much Butler has improved in these situations with one simple game, especially in one where the hoop probably looked twice its normal size when he shot. Any time a player scores 52 points it's safe to call the performance an outlier.
But this isn't new for Butler.
In his last six games that included "clutch" time - that is, the game was within five points with five minutes or less in the game -Butler, in 28 combined minutes, has scored 40 points on 66 percent shooting (12-for-18), made 16 of 17 free-throws, and committed just two turnovers. Here are Butler's clutch scoring numbers in each of those last seven games, beginning Dec. 10 against the Heat.
Dec. 10, Miami: 10 points, 2-2 FG, 6-7 FT, 5 minutes
Dec. 13, Minnesota: 4 points, 2-4 FG, 5 minutes
Dec. 26, Indiana: 3 points, 0-1 FG, 3-3 FT, 5 minutes
Dec. 28, Brooklyn: 6 points, 2-3 FG, 2-2 FT, 4 minutes (buzzer-beating game-winner)
Dec. 30, at Indiana: 2 points, 1-2 FG, 4 minutes
Jan. 2, Charlotte: 15 points, 5-6 FG, 5-5 FT, 5 minutes
(Note: The Bulls' Dec. 21 game against the Wizards was "clutch" for a single possession when the Bulls cut the deficit to four with 3 minutes left, but a Bradley Beal 3-pointer the next trip down pushed it out of "clutch" range for the remainder of the game, so it wasn't used)
Not surprisingly, Butler leads the Bulls in points, field goal percentage, field goals attempted, and free throws attempted in each of those six games. Butler has attempted 18 shots; the rest of the Bulls have attempted 26 as a team. And only Michael Carter-Williams has attempted a free throw (1, against Charlotte) in any of those six late-game situations. Butler's usage rate in those "clutch" situations is 50.0 (to put that in context, Russell Westbrook's usage rate this season is 42.2). And perhaps most importantly, the Bulls are 4-2 in those games.
It's a stark difference from the beginning of the season, when Butler struggled in these similar spots. Leading up to that Dec. 10 game against the Heat, Butler had appeared in 12 games that fell under the "clutch" category. While he did hit all 15 of his free-throw attempts, he shot just 6-for-24 from the field and his usage rate was 34.2 - an increase from his 27.2 usage rate on the season, but trailing Dwyane Wade for the team lead (27.9) and just 28th among qualified players.
Since Dec. 10, only Russell Westbrook (65.9) and DeMarcus Cousins (51.0) have higher usage rates in the clutch. And among players with a usage rate of 30.0 or higher in that span, Butler is fifth in true shooting percentage (78.5 percent), one spot above LeBron James (75.7 percent).
Last year Butler was solid in the clutch as well, shooting 45.4 percent, the same percentage he shot from the field in non-clutch situations; of players who attempted two or more field goal attempts per clutch game, Butler was third in field-goal percentage, eighth in points (3.6) and 10th in free-throw attempts (1.4). His usage rate in the clutch was 29.7 which trailed Derrick Rose (30.2).
This year there's no question about who the lead dog is down the stretch. Wade, one of the great closers in NBA history in his prime, dubbed the Bulls Butler's team before the year even started, and while Butler is making good on that proclamation in a number of different categories, his clutch play down the stretch is perhaps the most indicative statistic.
After the Bulls' 107-97 loss to the Wizards, Dwyane Wade said the Bulls might be relying too much on Butler down the stretch. But the reality is the Bulls are likely going to have to rely on him in close games, and certainly when Wade sits out.
They are admittedly small sample sizes, but Butler's late surges have propelled the Bulls to victories at a time when they're desperately staying afloat at the bottom of the East playoff picture.