LOS ANGELES -- Jimmy Butler got caught up in the hype in the Chicago Bulls' 114-91 destruction of the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night. The 26-year-old had just been selected to his second straight All-Star Game, he had his close friend actor Mark Wahlberg sitting courtside in a Jimmy Buckets T-shirt, and he was squaring up to face one of the guys he had idolized growing up -- Lakers star Kobe Bryant.
As has become the case in Butler's meteoric rise from solid defender to one of the best in the game, Butler rose to the challenge. On one of the game's biggest stages, albeit against an awful team, Butler dominated to the tune of 26 points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds and 4 steals, in 31 minutes.
"At the beginning of the game, yeah," Butler said of getting caught up in the matchup with Bryant. "Because that was a guy that I wanted to be like whenever I was growing up. I wanted to be in the position that he was, and before the game he just told me to keep going. Keep playing at the level that I'm playing at. It made me smile. I was like, 'You know what? If you got Kobe respect in this league, then you must be doing something right.' "
Butler is doing a lot of things right these days. He has become the best all-around player on the Bulls, an idea that would have seemed laughable just a few short years ago. In the process, he also has become one of the more respected players in the game. He's embracing the challenge of putting up big numbers and defending the opposition's best wing player each night.
"He did everything for us tonight," Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg said. "That first quarter where he got three steals in a row which led to three baskets was huge for us. We are putting the ball in his hands a lot, not just in isolation situations, but also we're putting him in a lot of ball screens. And he's just making the right play and the right read, he's continuing to get better in that role."
Where Butler is also getting better is in his play alongside Derrick Rose. The pair continues to smooth off the rough edges that were present in their collective game earlier in the season. Their pacing on the floor is in a much better place than it has been, as evidenced by Rose's 16 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds as well.
"This is new for me, as it's new for him," Rose said. "Playing with an elite guard, we're very young, the way that he's been playing is great. Like I always say, I want him to shoot more, but I love just his shot selection. His shot selections are great, the way he's driving to the lane, getting fouled, it helps our team all the way around."
When asked before Thursday's game what the biggest difference was in his game between last year at this time and this one, Butler was quick with his answer:
"My confidence is higher than it was last year," Butler said. "And it will continue to be if I continue to put in the work because that's where the confidence comes from.
"I think I know my place in this league, know my place in this team, so that helps with the confidence."
What also can't hurt from the confidence perspective is having one of the world's biggest movie stars rocking your gear in the stands. At the end of the first quarter, Wahlberg walked over toward the end of the Bulls' bench to give Butler a hug. It was a gesture that doesn't happen often during games, but in Los Angeles it seems as if anything is possible.
"It's a great choice," Butler said of Wahlberg's T-shirt decision. "Any time you can wear the Jordan Brand with my logo and my name on it, it's a lot of love. That's my guy. I get to go have lunch with him [Friday]. I'm extremely excited."
As a group, the Bulls all seem to enjoy playing in Los Angeles against the Lakers. Not all games during the long grind of an NBA season are equal. There are some contests that players everywhere get up for more than others. Thursday night marked one of those times for Butler and the Bulls. The freshly minted All-Star wanted to put on a show in front of his friends and in front of one of the players he respects the most in Bryant -- and he did.
"So much history here," Butler said. "Not to mention that you get to go against Kobe, one of the greatest to ever do it. I think everybody's going to show up for that. And you're in L.A. The sunshine's out, everybody knows people out here. So it's a great atmosphere to play basketball."
Butler was so good on this night that even Bryant took notice. The retiring great can appreciate what it takes to reach another level. Butler earned his biggest compliment from the man he has tried to emulate at times for years.
"I think it's just a testament to hard work," Bryant said of Butler. "I remember when he first came in the league in a game in Chicago, I was there early and he was there just as early working on his game. It's just a testament to hard work. He's developed every single year. He's added a pull-up jump shot, left, right. He can post left shoulder, right shoulder. It's just nothing but hard work for this guy and it pays off."