How Jimmy Butler is stepping up in the 'clutch' for Bulls

How Jimmy Butler is stepping up in the 'clutch' for Bulls

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.

Jim Boylen takes positive approach to injuries, Bulls' disappointing season

Jim Boylen takes positive approach to injuries, Bulls' disappointing season

One thing that has stood out throughout this disappointing Bulls season is Jim Boylen’s positivity.

Following most every game, he has highlighted in-game moments that he feels are signs of progress, even if they’re as basic as winning a quarter. He has praised players for their care factor and development.

The approach, like many of Boylen’s, has bothered some fans and observers. Perhaps not to the degree that his late-game timeout usage or rotational decisions or systems have, but the trait has caused some angst nonetheless.

It also stands in contrast to when Boylen first took over for the fired Fred Hoiberg. You remember his “shock and awe” campaign, the one where he openly questioned his players’ conditioning, made them do push-ups and in general sounded like a drill sergeant.

But the approach has at least served Boylen well as the Bulls have endured yet another stretch of injuries that has bordered on ridiculous. Wendell Carter Jr. is aiming for a Saturday return, while Otto Porter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen are trending in the right direction.

But the Bulls weren’t expecting to be playing two-way player Adam Mokoka rotational minutes in February, particularly alongside Cristiano Felicio and Shaq Harrison.

“What I’ve learned to do from people I’ve worked for and from being in this business is I take it as it comes,” Boylen said following Thursday’s practice at Advocate Center. “I try to stay in the moment, do the best I can to help this team get better and grow. I do not worry about tomorrow and I try to stay right in where we’re at. And where we’re at right now is banged up.

“I cannot wallow in that negativity or the things I can’t control. Otherwise, I don’t do as good a job on that floor teaching the guys that are practicing and are playing and staying positive and upbeat. And that’s what I get paid to do. I take a lot of pride in my attitude in these moments. That’s what this league is about to me. It’s easy when your team is healthy and you’re playing good and you’re winning games. But a lot of us in the league right now are going through these moments. And that’s part of it.”

So Boylen will continue stressing whatever he sees as positive, trying to set an example for his young team. On Thursday, that featured more talk of the Bulls’ shot profile. The Bulls rank second in shots from 5 feet or less and ninth in 3-point attempts.

“We have areas on the floor that we really value. A rim-2, which is right at the rim in the restricted area, or a corner 3, those are your highest-valued shots. Then you have a mid shot and an above-the-break 3. There are four distinct areas that we talk about,” Boylen said. “You would like more of the rim-twos and the corner 3s because those are the most valuable shots.”

The next step is converting them. The Bulls rank 26th in shots from 5 feet or less and 22nd in 3-point percentage.

“You hope to make those good looks you get. You hope to finish plays at the rim. And we’re working to do that,” Boylen said. “And that’s strength and youth and toughness and all those things we’re developing, You would say Coby White’s finishing has improved dramatically as he’s grown in the system. Our shot profile is very good.”

At 19 games under .500, that’s more positivity from Boylen.

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Coby White's NBA future goes beyond positional values

Coby White's NBA future goes beyond positional values

Among the hot topics for Bulls’ fans during this disappointing season has been the development of rookie guard Coby White. The Bulls drafted White with the 7th overall pick last June with the hope that eventually he could take over the starting point guard job and hold it for the next decade-plus.

White burst on to the scene by scoring 42 points in his first two NBA games and followed that up with back to back games of 27 and 26 points in November. He set a franchise record by making 7 three-pointers in the 4th quarter of a home-court win over the Knicks with his college coach Roy Williams watching from the stands. White quickly became a fan favorite, bringing back memories of past streak shooters like Ben Gordon, Jamal Crawford, and Nate Robinson.

Still, White hasn’t been immune to the typical growing pains experienced by a 19-year-old NBA rookie. He went through a few stretches of sub-par shooting and inconsistent playing time, averaging just 9.4 points during the month of December while shooting 37.7% from the field. And January wasn’t a whole lot better, with White averaging 10.3 points on 39% shooting.

Part of the problem was White being asked to take on more playmaking responsibilities, which took away from his natural aggressiveness as a scorer. The Bulls’ coaching staff finally told Coby to go back to what made him so successful as a high scoring guard in high school and college: attack the basket in transition and use his quickness in pick and roll situations to create shots for himself and his teammates.

With Kris Dunn likely out for the rest of the season because of a knee injury, White began to play more minutes with Zach LaVine, and all of a sudden they’ve become a formidable 1-2 punch. White and LaVine just became the first Bulls’ duo since Bob Love and Chet Walker in 1969 to score 30-plus points apiece in consecutive games.

LaVine is no stranger to high scoring games, but the 6th year guard is genuinely excited about how good his young backcourt mate might turn out to be. “He’s coming into his own, and I’ve said this from day one, he’s special. He can score the ball like no other,” LaVine told reporters after the loss to Oklahoma City on Tuesday. “He’s continuing to get better. He’s 20 years old. I think he’s starting to find his groove right now.”

So, back to the original point. What’s the best way to develop a young scoring guard like Coby White?

We’ve seen several teams in recent years trying to build their offense around a pair of dynamic guards, like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson with Golden State, John Wall and Bradley Beal with the Wizards, the former Toronto backcourt duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, and James Harden teaming up with Chris Paul and now Russell Westbrook in Houston. Is that the model the Bulls will follow? Or do they need to have more of a facilitating point guard to play alongside LaVine?

Clearly, the old way of defining positions no longer applies in the world of professional basketball. Rather than force White to reign in his game to be more of a traditional point guard, the Bulls need to embrace the offensive firepower generated by two explosive backcourt scorers.

White’s recent offensive onslaught came in part because opposing defenses are focusing so much attention on slowing down LaVine. That duo should find even more operating room in the future when the starting frontcourt of Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr. is back on the court, and next season there will likely be another lottery pick to add to the core.

Whether White starts for the rest of the season or not isn’t the issue. He’s playing starter’s minutes now and is on the court with LaVine in closing lineups.

Tomas Satoransky has only one fully guaranteed year left on his contract and has the versatility at 6-foot-7 to play all three perimeter positions. Ryan Arcidiacono will continue to be a depth option. Dunn will be a restricted free agent this summer and might not return. The Bulls need to continue to develop White’s passing and decision-making skills while understanding what really makes him special is the ability to score points in bunches. There’s no reason why White and LaVine can’t be effective playing together, especially since White is an active and willing defender with good size at 6-foot-5.

Very little has gone right for the Bulls this season, but if Coby White can continue to build off his recent flurry of 30+ scoring games, the backcourt will be a real problem for opposing teams in years to come.

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