LOS ANGELES — Knowing his top running mate was out, a tired Jimmy Butler approached Fred Hoiberg with a pretty clear declaration for the Bulls’ game against the young L.A. Lakers: “I’m going for 40.”
If it was clairvoyance instead of outright confidence, perhaps Butler could’ve foreseen getting a quicker jump over Lakers forward Julius Randle in the final minute of the Bulls’ bounce-back 118-110 win at Staples Center Sunday night.
The play essentially signified what Butler was Sunday and what he aims to be for a Bulls team that appears to be following Butler’s lead in the way of mental toughness, as Butler and Randle were tied up for a jump ball with 48 seconds left.
A once-comfortable 13-point lead two minutes prior had been whittled down to five and had the Lakers retrieved the jump ball, Staples Center could’ve been the house of horrors it was the night before in their heartbreaking loss to the L.A. Clippers.
But Butler tipped it to Nikola Mirotic before Randle’s longer arms could get to it, and on the way down, Butler absorbed the double team to find Rajon Rondo for a layup that effectively ended the Lakers’ threat.
“I’m athletic. You didn’t know I had that still but I get up a little bit,” Butler joked. “It’s tough. He was up there with me but… I got that. Fred said it was the biggest play of the game but I try to tell him that reverse layup, it was pretty tough (too).”
There was the reverse layup, the pounding drives to the basket that wound up with Butler taking 14 free throws as well as the quick-twitched tip-ins on teammates’ misses that completed yet another banner night for a player who no longer has to convince anyone he belongs in the upper echelon of great players in the NBA.
“He was tired this morning. I give him credit for doing what he had to do to get himself ready and rested,” Hoiberg said. “He told me before the game, ‘coach I’m going for 40 tonight’ and he did it.”
The stat line speaks for itself, with his 40 points, seven rebounds and six assists on 14 of 23 shooting in 40 minutes. But his aggressive approach — and even his confidence — especially with Dwyane Wade out (rest), permeated through the rest of his teammates.
“I think that’s the way I have to think,” Butler said. “If I don’t, I look at it as just being another player out there. My teammates tell me to play like that, think like that. D-Wade is still helping me through this process. It’s great to have him in my corner.”
His performances are becoming more commonplace as his bruising style of play makes him as effective as anyone in his position — especially as the opposing bodies keep bouncing off him and he trots to the free-throw line.
“With Dwyane out, we’re going to play through Jimmy a lot,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy did an unbelievable job of getting himself to the basket, getting to the line, making plays for his teammates.”
Pushing the Bulls to a 3-1 start on the circus trip wasn’t as critical as seeing how the Bulls would respond after Saturday’s loss, and whatever metric one chooses to measure the Bulls’ mental toughness to date, they’re passing.
Outrebounding a young and athletic team by 19. Outshooting the Lakers, 52 percent to 44. Following gameplan initiatives like keeping D’Angelo Russell from unleashing havoc with penetration and shooting and keeping valuable reserve Jordan Clarkson to a one for 12 shooting night were chief reasons why the Bulls were able to withstand runs and play well in Wade’s absence.
They couldn’t stop everybody, as Lou Williams single-handededly erased an early Bulls lead, scoring 25 and uber athletic forward Larry Nance Jr. flew over and around some of the groundbound Bulls for 18 points and six rebounds.
A five-point lead to start the fourth stretched to double digits with Butler getting a rare rest, on the back of some bench players who weren’t up to par against the Clippers, needing a game in the worst way.
Isaiah Canaan, scoring 17 with three triples. Nikola Mirotic, who started in place of Wade as Butler slid back to shooting guard, finished with 15 and 15 rebounds. To start the fourth, he ran the break for a layup, found Bobby Portis for a layup and hit a triple to put the Bulls up 102-91 with 8:45 left.
When it was suggested to Gibson the bench needed this type of performance, he quickly interjected, “Especially Niko. Especially Niko. Niko.”
Gibson and Robin Lopez often get the Bulls off on the right foot to start games, so seeing Mirotic continue the example is as fresh in his mind as any frustrated observer.
“It was great for him. I told him before the game, you’ll need your shots,” said Gibson, who scored 15 with seven rebounds. “It’s time to step up. It’s no more, you’re not a rookie anymore. It’s about being a man and being ready. It was great to see Niko being aggressive on offensive and defensive side. He doesn’t get credit but he rebounds. And he played the 3, chasing Nick Young around.”
Rondo kept Butler fed and Butler kept eating, as Butler sheepishly confirmed his pregame creed to Hoiberg, one that seems more like a proclamation rather than arrogance.
“Did he really say that? Okay, I did say that,” Butler said. “I just felt like that’s what my team was gonna need from me. For me to be aggressive, to put the ball in the basket.”
What the Bulls needed, Butler provides, night after night.