Commentary

Work never ends for Bulls' Butler

In the grind toward the playoffs, Thibodeau leans heavily on defensive stopper

Updated: March 18, 2014, 2:55 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- "And in the second quarter, Jimmy Butler rested for 2 minutes and 9 seconds. And then He yelled for Butler to get back in there." (Thibs 21:46)

On Monday night, Jimmy Butler got two minutes of rest and nothing more.

The Chicago Bulls' defensive stopper had the most unenviable job in the league, shadowing Kevin Durant. And oh yeah, trying to provide some offense for one of the league's worst scoring teams, too.

[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
David Banks/USA TODAY SportsMonday's matchup with Kevin Durant was only the latest top-tier assignment for Jimmy Butler.

That's life for a Thibodeau Man. Hard work and cold baths. Rinse and repeat.

While defending Durant is a team activity -- and some of his baskets came on defensive breakdowns, bad rotations and switches -- the brunt of guarding the mellifluous scorer fell to Butler, who played just under 46 minutes in a 97-85 loss to Oklahoma City at the United Center.

Somewhere in Cleveland, Luol Deng's body tingled.

Durant, the favorite for the NBA's Most Valuable Player Award, extended his streak of 25-plus-point games to 32 by scoring 35 on 11-for-21 shooting. But Durant's success wasn't for lack of effort by Butler, who denied Durant even more looks.

How can you defend a 6-foot-9 Mr. Fantastic clone with guard skills who shoots one-legged 3-pointers?

"It's difficult, tough, but that's what I asked for," Butler said. "[Durant] played a good game tonight. I did what I could, to tell you the truth."

While Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is known as a taskmaster and a bit of a sideline lunatic, all he really wants is 100 percent effort 100 percent of the time. Is that too much to ask?

Somewhere in Cleveland, Deng's quadriceps shiver.

Once Deng was traded in early January, Butler's minutes shot up and the role of defensive stopper fell solely on his chiseled shoulders. Monday was just another night for the New Lu.

"I thought Jimmy made [Durant] work," Thibodeau said. "And that's the great value of Jimmy, he never gets discouraged. He's going to keep battling. ... Jimmy's tough. He's tough."

But how tough can one man be? During the Bulls' six-game homestand, which ended with a respectable 3-3 record, Butler had to cover LeBron James, James Harden, Rudy Gay and Durant.

While at home, the Bulls beat the Heat, Rockets and Kings and lost to the Grizzlies, Spurs and Thunder. Butler shot 33.3 percent for the homestand, with his best game -- 23 points on 7-for-14 from the field -- coming against James and the Heat. He's nicked up, bruised and tired. Nothing new, really. It's March, and while the college guys prepare for the fun of the NCAA tournament, the pros go to work.

Butler was poised to be the breakout star of this team, but instead he's become the steady defender still searching for his shot.

While his teammates tout him as a "first-team all-defense" guard, Butler hasn't become the consistent scorer many hoped he would after his breakout season in 2012-13. He's averaging 12.8 points and shooting 38.7 percent from the field and 26.9 on 3-pointers. He's getting to the line around five times a game, where he's shooting 77 percent.

Against the Thunder -- he was cross-matched with Durant, who mostly guarded Taj Gibson -- Butler shot 4-for-12, missing five of six 3-pointers. His one basket in the fourth quarter was a beauty. He got a steal 38 seconds into the frame, shoved aside Derek Fisher like he was an old man blocking his way to a departing bus and cruised in for a dunk.

That was a spark. Less than 80 seconds later, the Bulls had cut a nine-point deficit to one. But then they didn't score again for more than six minutes. Butler missed two 3-pointers and committed a turnover.

Butler, in his third season out of Marquette, scoffed at a question asking if his defense is costing him his legs on offense, but other Bulls aren't so sure.

"We know he's tired," one remarked.

But everyone in the locker room is tired. What has made the Bulls an unusually cohesive and successful team is the air of accountability regardless of status or salary. That starts at the top with Thibodeau, but the continuity of the core players has set the standard.

So when you ask a Bull if Butler's tired legs should be saved a little ...

"What can we do?" Gibson said. "We don't have Luol here to give him a break from time to time. He has to do everything. And that's what we're asking for as a team. We have a lot of guys sacrificing, a lot of guys hurt. No excuses. We've got to come here and find a way. Eat right and do whatever you can to try to make those baskets and play great defense."

Anyone got some of that Popeye's spinach?

Thibodeau's minutes management, a prickly subject for years, has been better than advertised this season. Joakim Noah averages just under 35 minutes, Mike Dunleavy and D.J. Augustin around 30, while Gibson, Carlos Boozer and Kirk Hinrich play about 29.

Butler, who has played 52 of 67 games, is on the Deng Plan, averaging a team-high 37 minutes, 31 seconds per game. In six of nine games this month, he's played more than 42 minutes.

Asked how he's coping with the copious workload, Butler said, "Just lot of ice, cold tub, massage. All of that good stuff."

[+] EnlargeJimmy Butler
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJimmy Butler turned in his best game of the homestand -- 23 points -- when he faced LeBron James and the Heat.

The Bulls' obvious goal of a championship run was downgraded once Derrick Rose got hurt, but this is still a team set on winning multiple playoff series. For that to happen, the team has to be relatively fresh.

Meanwhile, Tony Snell sits on the bench watching and waiting. Unlike the departed Marquis Teague, the rookie swingman is going to stick on this team. The organization is high on him, but his minutes are still inconsistent. He's playing more (18.1 minutes per game) than Butler did as a rookie (8.5) by necessity.

Snell has played 11 total minutes in the past two games. Before that, he played 61 minutes in a four-game span. Before that, he played 24 in four games.

Snell has a solid 3-point shot and a decent defensive foundation, but you don't get free minutes under Thibodeau. Everything is earned.

"It's just defensively, sometimes I mess up," Snell said. "But that's part of the game. I've got to learn from my mistakes. At the same time, Mike and Jimmy, they're both playing really good offensively and defensively."

Snell said he watches how Butler reads the ball and anticipates steals. Does he ever want to tell Thibodeau he's ready for a few more minutes when Butler is lagging?

"No, I'd never say that," Snell said with a smile at the thought. "I just stay ready at all times."

The Bulls are currently fourth in the East, with designs on getting the third seed over the final 15 games. Now, I'd never tell Thibodeau to consistently play more Snell and less Butler, but it would make sense. Not that Thibodeau would listen.

Jimmy had better keep icing up and psyching up, because there's no rest for men like him in Thibodeau's world.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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