In no mood to discuss an upcoming award that was rightly well-deserved, Jimmy Butler turned the white-hot mirror of basketball criticism onto himself after having a front row seat to LeBron James elevating his game in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinal series between Butler’s Bulls and James’ Cavaliers.
The soon-to-be-named Most Improved Player was schooled by the four-time Most Valuable Player Wednesday, one game after Butler began carving out a bigger and greater name for himself to start the series.
Restricted free-agent to be against Max Player of all max players.
The game illustrates and inalienable truth Butler couldn’t avoid if he wanted to, that neutralizing James with his own play is likely the difference between going onto the conference finals and going home.
James scored 33 with eight rebounds and five assists, working himself into a lather early and believing his teammates would follow. Working Butler into a tizzy was an ancillary benefit.
“He was aggressive but I wasn’t aggressive on defense,” Butler said. “It was easy for him. He got to the rim too easy. Lots of layups. Reckless fouling. He did what he said he was gonna do.”
Butler knew James was going to come out strong, and devastating. He wanted his teammates to be up to task. Clearly, whether they admitted it or not, the Bulls were satisfied with stealing one game on the road and swapping home court advantage—but it can be all taken away with one bad 48-minute stretch—and we all know the Bulls are more than capable of that.
“(We) came out sluggish. We weren’t guarding,” Butler said. “We were trying to outscore them. We’ve been saying we can’t do that all year, that it’s easily correctable. It starts with me and like I always say I have to be the one who sets the tone on defense.”
If Butler is to be believed, and nobody would ever misconstrue Butler for being fake, then this team has to, in large measure, follow Butler. As much as Derrick Rose is the heart of this team, and the face, Butler owns the Bulls’ attitude.
It’s not so much bravado as it is reality, as Butler looks at James as a peer and not some deity worthy of praise.
“He’s just another player,” Butler often says.
When Butler sees James rise off the bench and saunter to the scorer’s table after brief rests, Butler nonchalantly accepts his fate, steals a few more seconds of time off his feet before heading in that direction.
In his head, you can almost see Butler say to himself: “I will follow him wherever he goes, even if it’s to the bathroom”.
Butler is the man standing in the way of a transcendent player doing something unprecedented in today’s NBA. Since the playoffs expended to 16 teams in 1984, no player has led his team to five straight NBA Finals—a feat James is in line to accomplish, if he can get past Butler, run him over, go around him or whatever phrase best fits this matchup.
Larry Bird was stopped by Isiah Thomas and the Pistons in 1988 from achieving such a feat. Retirement apparently stopped Michael Jordan in the mid-90s, and the most Magic Johnson or Kobe Bryant ever did was reach the Finals three times in a row.
The reason is it’s too damn hard to go back to the emotional well time after time—and there must be an opponent worthy of driving a superstar to his physical and mental limit before he says “No Mas”.
That’s Butler’s test, to wear James down, but he must do it while also keeping his own reservoir above empty. Butler watched James take a couple plays off and actually look exhausted late after a strong start—not to mention James pulling himself out of the game with 7:58 left in the first quarter after willing his team to an early 13-2 advantage.
“Yeah, that’s what he does,” Butler said. “He’s the leader of his team and he controls a lot of it. Whether he’s pulling himself out or calling plays, he knows what he’s doing.”
It wasn’t a shot at James, just more acceptance of the stakes, and the magnitude of his responsibility. Butler went to the bench with James, although he wasn’t feeling so tired at the time.
His backcourt mate, perhaps unwilling in intent to put more pressure on him but aligned together in assessing things as they are, put it bluntly.
“This is the matchup that’s could definitely build his confidence as far as being a superstar player,” Rose said. “He’s playing against a player that’s extremely talented, that puts so much pressure on a defense just by having the ball.”
“Jimmy, he’s gotta take that challenge. I think that last game, he showed up. He did a great job of having bodies in front of (James). I think it’s gonna take a little minute to get there.”
After James’ domination in Game 2, Butler was asked if Rose’s assessment was fair—while Rose was 10 feet away.
“That’s fair. I have to outplay guys. End of story,” he said.
Even a guy like LeBron?
“Yeah. I have to produce," he answered. "That’s my job on this team, to guard and score baskets. It’s not too much to be asked because I think I’m very capable of it.”
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And if you want a reason why the Bulls don’t fear the specter of LeBron James, take in Butler’s words. And if you want a reason how the Bulls can beat the Cavaliers and keep their season going, consider Butler’s attitude—it might be their only hope.
“We’ll fix everything on Friday.”
As for the award, that’s a happy day for another day.
“Not too much right now,” said Butler when asked to reflect on it. “I’m focused on helping this ballclub win some games. I want to win this series, I want to win a championship. At the end of the season, maybe this Most Improved Player Award will mean a lot more.”
Because in the meantime, he needs sleep. James is headed back to the scorer’s table, and Butler’s sure to follow.
“I will follow him wherever he goes.”