TORONTO -- Jimmy Butler isn't the All-Star swingman that he appeared to be earlier in the season. He's a rehabbing 26-year-old who has played just two games in over a month after a knee strain kept him out of action for over a month.
But in the waning seconds of the Chicago Bulls' surprising 109-107 win over the Toronto Raptors on Monday night, Butler did what all great players do, no matter the circumstances: He made the biggest play of the night and helped secure an important victory for his team.
After splitting a pair of free throws with 5.9 seconds left, Butler raced down the floor to knock the ball out of DeMar DeRozan's hands with .8 seconds left. The play clinched a much-needed victory for the Bulls and underscored Butler's ability to change the game all in one fell swoop.
"That was a huge play by Jimmy coming down," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "[He] made one of the two free throws and just made a heck of a play on the ball. They set that screen high and Jimmy just fought through it, stayed on his hip and made a great defensive play."
After it was all over, Butler pulled a towel off his head and acknowledged what was apparent at certain times in the game: He was tired.
"I'm out of shape," Butler said. "That's fine, though. I got a couple more days to get it back. As long as we keep winning, tired or not, I'm happy."
The fact that Butler went just 5-for-18 from the field wasn't as important as the fact that he was simply out there. If the Bulls want to have any hope of crawling back into the playoff picture -- they are now a game ahead of the Detroit Pistons in the loss column in the race for the eight seed in the Eastern Conference -- they need Butler to be on the floor. He is the Bulls' best two-way player and the man his teammates rely on to get them out of certain situations on both ends of the floor.
Butler's ability gives the rest of his younger teammates an emotional lift, especially on a team currently playing without veterans Derrick Rose (groin), Pau Gasol (knee), Mike Dunleavy (stomach virus) and Joakim Noah (out for the year after shoulder surgery).
"He's vocal out there," Bulls sharpshooter Doug McDermott said, referencing Butler. "He really challenges us. He challenges all of us defensively, and I think that's huge for us. He's just a great voice to have out there. He's always in the right spot. He can make up for some of our mistakes on defense. And obviously you got to give him credit on his offense, too. But I just think the way his defense is just helps us so much."
During a season in which the Bulls have struggled to rally around one another, Butler's play in the final seconds on Monday might serve as a turning point for a group still hoping to make a final playoff push. In the process, Butler also laid down more of the foundation he hopes his younger teammates follow.
"It's very important," Butler said of setting the tone in the fourth quarter. "Just to get guys to understand in the fourth-quarter defense is going to win you games. Yeah, you're going to score, they're going to hit tough shots, but at the end of the day, if you guard and you stop them from scoring -- we'll win."
The Bulls have now won nine straight games over the Raptors and hold a clear mental advantage over Toronto if the two teams meet in the postseason. Despite all their flaws, the Bulls believe they can beat Toronto. More importantly, the Raptors play as if they know they can't beat the Bulls.
Several players mentioned the confidence boost that came after Monday's win, but the biggest jolt for the Bulls' collective ego came when Butler stepped back on the floor. He still needs time to find his form, but he came up big in the biggest moment for his group on Monday night.
"A win is a win," Butler said. "No matter how [crappy] I played."