Jimmy Butler had high praise for Phoenix Suns rookie Devin Booker but that praise came with a bit of a lesson, as Booker learned it the painful way: Talking trash to a guy who’s looking for a reason to get fired up is a bad idea.
“He was talking trash to me,” Butler said. “That’s what was crazy. He was talking to me. I was like, ‘Excuse me.’”
The incredulousness in Butler’s voice manifested itself in the fourth quarter, as Butler abused the league’s youngest player in the fourth quarter after the Suns had everything on their side: A raucous crowd that was filled with a lot of red in the stands, momentum after trailing by 17 and coming in on a three-game winning streak, all by double digits.
But they didn’t have Jimmy Butler, who made the Suns pay in the last 12 minutes for 14 points on his way to a season-high 32, as the Bulls put away a pesky Suns team at Talking Stick Resort Arena, 103-97, for an encouraging start to a three-game western swing.
Booker blocked a Butler layup in the fourth and barked at him a bit the next time downcourt, even hitting a pair of triples to help build precious second-half momentum.
Then Butler put the Booker on the block the next two times, luring Booker into biting on pump fakes for fouls, the latter a three-point play as Booker’s hack was no match for Butler’s strength.
He proceeded to let the crowd know he was feeling it, much to the approval of a big chunk of the fans in attendance, and looking forward to the challenge of going head-up with the reigning MVP of the NBA champs on Friday, Golden State’s Stephen Curry.
“Yep. I look forward to guarding everybody in this league, especially a prime time scorer like him,” Butler said. “So I’ll ask coach for that matchup. No disrespect to him but I like that.”
[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]
Butler finally admitted he loves the opportunities of having his teammates look for him when they need a big basket, the hallmark of a player determined to prove he’s worth every bit of a maximum contract he signed over the summer.
“It just shows how far I’ve come and how I worked on my game to be able to score the ball late and for my teammates to know my ability to score,” Butler said. “That’s the utmost respect coming from them to me and me returning the favor because I’m showing I can put the ball in the basket.”
With Nikola Mirotic struggling and Derrick Rose out, Butler knew much more of the burden would fall on his shoulders, as he wouldn’t allow Hoiberg to take him out for a quick spell to start the fourth.
“I tried to take him out, he wouldn't let me,” Hoiberg said. “It was almost like his energy level went on in that fourth quarter and that's what big time performers do. They step up when you need it most.”
Booker just happened to provide a little extra kerosene on a smoldering fire that was bound to explode in the final stanza.
“Kid has got potential. He can really shoot,” Butler said. “But sometimes I think you should just play the game and let that be it.”
Booker was feeling the momentum, as the Suns stalked the Bulls for the better part of three quarters after a disastrous opening 12 minutes and even took an 88-87 lead with 4:47 left.
“I knew we would be in for a heck of a battle,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “They picked up the pressure. They were the tougher team for a stretch but we got it back at the end.”
On one possession in the second half, the Bulls allowed six offensive rebounds close to the basket until PJ Tucker scored on the lucky seventh try, as their aggressiveness forced 20 turnovers to make up for shooting just 41 percent from the field.
Without Rose (ankle) and having Aaron Brooks tweak his left hamstring twice, Suns guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight looked to have field days on the perimeter, getting to the paint and combining for nearly half of the Suns’ scoring (44 points).
But Kirk Hinrich helped aid Butler in his cause of saving the Bulls on the character-building road opener, hitting a triple after a Pau Gasol driving dunk, part of his 14-point, six-assist performance.
“I put him back in there and hit that huge 3 off that ball screen. He played solid minutes,” Hoiberg said. “He's the one, early in that game he did such a good job getting us into an offense and getting our defense organized.”
Gasol got the Bulls off to a 72-percent shooting start by making his first five shots on his way to a 17-point night, and before Brooks got hurt, he made his presence felt after getting shut out of playing time against the Pacers with 12 points and five assists in 19 minutes.
But in 42 grueling minutes, the night belonged to Butler, setting the tone and perhaps firmly establishing himself at the top of this food chain.
A lesson Booker learned the hard way.