By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, the Sixers had already resorted to drastic measures against the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler.
They tried jumping pick-and-rolls, double-teaming and even grabbing and holding on to Butler — everything aside from pushing him over or punching him.
But no matter what the Sixers tried, Butler got his shots, and much to the Sixers’ chagrin, his buckets.
Butler scored a visiting-team record 53 points against the Sixers at the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday night in the Bulls’ 115-111 overtime victory (see game recap). He scored 51 at the end of regulation, before the Sixers’ defense in overtime went into, “anybody-but-him” mode.
That’s when reserve point guard E’Twaun Moore hit for seven straight points on his way to 14 on 6 for 8 shooting. Regardless, Butler was the difference for the Bulls, dragging them back from a 24-point first-half deficit with 25 points in the first half, 11 in the third quarter and 15 more in the final frame.
“The philosophical thing is at the end of the game we have an anybody-but rule, so we hit him and double-teamed him and we changed the pick-and-roll to keep JaKarr (Sampson) matched up against him,” head coach Brett Brown said of the Sixers’ defensive scheme against Butler. “We did that and we made the adjustment and then Moore punished us at the end. To me, that was the game. Butler was doing his thing and we persevered and made the adjustment and then Moore came out and punished that.”
All told, Butler went 15 for 30 with two three-pointers. But where he did his most damage was the free throw line, converting 21 of 25 attempts to go with 10 rebounds and six assists. With former All-Stars Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose out with injuries, Butler figured he had to do the heavy lifting.
He did that and then some.
In addition to Butler’s 53 points going down as the most by a visitor at the Wells Fargo Center, he is also the fourth Bull to score 50 points in a game joining Jamal Crawford, former Sixer Chet Walker and Michael Jordan, who did it 30 times.
He also is the third Bull to attempt at least 20 free throws in a game, joining Artis Gilmore and Jordan, who did it five times.
Meanwhile, Butler is the second player to score 50-plus against the Sixers this season. James Harden hit for 50 on Nov. 27 in Houston on 16 for 28 shooting and 16 for 20 from the line. The only other 50-point game in the NBA this season was Steph Curry’s 53-point showing against New Orleans on Oct. 31.
“Jimmy is a heckuva of player,” said Ish Smith, who played for New Orleans this season when Curry scored 53 points. “That was fun, it was fun to watch with both teams going back and forth. He’s an All-Star for a reason and he’s having an MVP-type of season. I’m not just saying that either. I thought we did some things well defensively, but when someone gets it going like that you have to tip your hat to him. He got some good shots up over us.”
Sampson knows all about those shots because he had to attempt to guard Butler for most of the game. With Jerami Grant out with a sore calf, Sampson was thrown into the starting lineup and matched up against Butler in his 25 minutes.
Trying to find the silver lining of a 53-point performance hanging there against them, Sampson is trying to use the game as a learning experience.
“I’m trying to find my way in this league and I have to step up and take the challenge, but he’s tough player. He’s a great player and my job was to try and make it tough for him and I tried, but he had it going on,” Sampson said.
“He’s a smart basketball player. We tried to stop him from doing one thing and he found another way to get it. We tried to deny him and he got the ball.”
Even when Sampson and the Sixers stopped Butler, they ended up getting whistled for fouls. The Bulls as a team went 26 for 31 from the line with Butler counting for 21 for 25 of that. In the fourth quarter, Butler went 7 for 13 from the field while the rest of the team went 5 for 7.
In other words, the Sixers couldn’t take the ball away from Butler even when they tried.
“We tried to change up some of the defensive schemes,” Sampson said. “When I was guarding him we tried switching up a lot and getting quick hedges before going back on him, but it’s tough when a player is that hot.”
It’s also tough when the Bulls’ second and third top scorers were out, too. But with Butler entering the game averaging 22.2 points and Rose and Gasol combining to average 31.0 points, Butler simply made up the difference.