The Butler seems to be doing it for the Bulls


Jul 18

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Maybe Luol Deng should go ahead and have that wrist surgery. Yes, it’s just NBA Summer League. But Bulls second-year small forward Jimmy Butler showed in Tuesday’s 79-74 opening loss to the Boston Celtics in Las Vegas he may be ready to take that big first step toward being an NBA producer.

“The coaches tell me I have to stay aggressive and be a leader,” said Butler, who had 25 points, matching Boston’s E’Twaun Moore, along with seven rebounds, a team-high three assists and 10 of 12 free throws. “Not to take selfish shots, which I feel I took a few of those. I can’t do that. But I felt really good. I’ve been doing my work and it’s paying off. I passed up a few open threes, I’ve got to look for my teammates more. But I felt good out there.”

Butler looked good and confident, better than any time during his little used rookie season with the Bulls. He played with aggression, taking the ball hard to the basket and drawing contact like a veteran. He went up in traffic for tough rebounds, three offensive, and showed confident leadership.

He was constantly talking to rookie Marquis Teague, who had a brutal debut, shooting four of 17 after missing 10 straight shots and being victimized on defense by Moore. Coaches also said Butler was encouraging teammates on the bench and having everyone get up and greet teammates coming off the floor in timeouts.

Butler also demonstrated an off court self-confidence and assurance that was missing last season. He stopped before the game to initiate talk with reporters, greeting several by first name. Last season, reporters joked Butler didn’t even know the regulars who traveled with the team he talked so little and was so withdrawn and prickly at times. But Tuesday as the Bulls opened summer league through Sunday, Butler was the player to rely upon.

“Jimmy, you could tell he had more seasoning than most of the guys out there,” said assistant Adrian Griffin, who is coaching the Bulls Guys of Summer. “He’s our horse. He’s our go to guy. He’s worked hard and looked good.”

No, Butler isn’t ready to replace Deng, who became an All-Star and all-league defender and was perhaps coach Tom Thibodeau’s most reliable player. But I was impressed the way Butler went to the basket and drew contact. It’s not something anyone on the Bulls does really well, even Derrick Rose who tends to fall away from hits and often doesn’t get as many calls as a result.

Though it is summer league, the Celtics were playing second year men who contributed last season, like Moore and JaJuan Johnson. Rookie Jared Sullinger came kind of as advertised, a bit too grounded but a wide body who kept position. He shot just three of 15, but had 14 rebounds and gave veteran Leon Powe troubles as Powe was zero for four in about 15 minutes.

The Bulls played mostly even early and trailed 23-18 after one quarter as they shot the ball poorly. The Bulls finished the game shooting 35.7 percent and four of 13 on threes with no one showing much range. Boston shot exceptionally well in a first half in which the Bulls gave up a lot of open shots. The Bulls went on to trail 53-32 at halftime. But they held the Celtics to 10 of 38 shooting in the second half and drew within four in the last minute before Boston closed it out.

“It took us a whole half to wake up,” said Griffin. “I expected Boston to be sharper. They’d been playing (earlier here and in Orlando last week). I thought we came out without intensity. The first quarter was fine, but in the second quarter it got away from us.”

The Bulls also got inspired fight and shot blocking from Malcolm Thomas, the Taj Gibson-like forward from San Diego State. He had three blocks and a team high 13 rebounds. Though not much was expected of him, the Bulls also got a bit of a boost late from Georgetown center Henry Sims. He replaced a struggling Powe in the Bulls spirited late, albeit short, comeback.

But this summer league session primarily is about Butler and Teague for the Bulls. The Bulls hope Butler can be a rotation reserve, someone who can step in for Ronnie Brewer. Butler seems well on his way toward that goal, and with a more sophisticated offensive game than Brewer’s. It’s probably a bit too much to expect Teague to replace C.J. Watson at point guard, though Teague didn’t seem knocked back by his poor performance.

“It was like there was a lid on the rim for me,” said Teague, who finished with eight points and just one assist and four turnovers (overall, the Bulls had just seven assists). I’ll be ready for tomorrow. I’ve got to stay confident. It’s about winning the game and not about what any one player has to do. In the first half, I made some silly mistakes (lazy turnover in his first possession). In the second half, I slowed down and we came back. I’ll take off from that second half tomorrow.

“I had a rough game today,” Teague agreed. “Shots were not falling and we lost. I’ll be ready to bounce back to tomorrow.”

Teague also got an early lesson in NBA sophistication. It didn’t take long for the Celtics to see Teague wasn’t making shots, and Celtics were yelling from the bench in the second half for their defenders to go under the screen on Teague. As a point guard, unless you are a super athlete like Rajon Rondo, you need to make that jump shot or the defense will sink back in a form of zone.

That will be one big test for Teague, who obviously was uncertain about how much to try to get to the basket, which seems his strength, and try to run the offense. It’s a tough balancing act, especially for a rookie, and it would seem the Bulls still need a veteran backup point guard to go along with presumed starter Kirk Hinrich until Rose returns from his knee injury.

Still, it was just Teague’s first game, and he is trying to learn the toughest position.

“This is a learning experience for him,” said Griffin. “He did some good things, but the intensity has to pick up. He’s got to get into the ball (on defense). I thought he settled in a lot more in the second half. We won’t lose sight of this being the first game.”

At least Teague didn’t appear rattled, especially when losing the ball the first time he touched it. But Butler, like the big brother he is trying to be for Teague, got the ball back on a steal and passed to Teague for a layup. Teague would then miss his next 10 shots.

The game stayed pretty even most of the first quarter with Butler crashing to the basket for a pair of three point plays and Thomas getting up in traffic for some tough rebounds.

Butler did hit one three, though he scored more on drives and runouts. Butler also showed a nice feel with a terrific bounce pass to Jermaine Taylor for a dunk. But the Bulls fell apart with the reserve group coming in during the second quarter and generally failed to contest many shots as the Celtics shot 56 percent in that 21-point halftime lead and seven of 13 on threes. Though the Bulls would outscore Boston 42-26 after halftime with more urgent play.

After halftime, Thomas had a huge block which went to Ramone Moore who found Butler running out for a dunk. That group played much better in transition and Butler added another and-1 to bring the Bulls within 70-53 after three.

The Bulls fought back late, though a little short after getting it under 10 with about six minutes left. Teague finally broke his draught late with a running bank shot as he seemed to give up on his jumper. The comeback ended when Teague’s attempt for a lob to Butler went awry for a turnover.

Though overall it was a very encouraging outing for Butler, and thus for the Bulls who are looking to fill out a lately diminishing rotation.

“Overall, in the first half, we let them do whatever they wanted to do, shoot open jumpers, not guard the ball tough enough. That’s why they got up 20,” noted Butler. “Then we started to play the way the Chicago Bulls play basketball. We cut it down to a pretty manageable lead. I was just trying to stay aggressive. By me being aggressive, hopefuly my teammates would take after that and start to be aggressive, too.

“I feel like I have to lead by example,” said Butler. “If I’m calm and playing hard, then my teammates are going to be calm. I’m just in my second year and still a rookie, kind of. But I feel like a veteran on this team. So I’ve got to lead. If that’s taking over a game, getting to the line, I have to do that. I’m getting my confidence up and learning how to be a better leader. I want to show Marcus the ropes like Ronnie and all the guys did for me. I told him to keep shooting. He’s always the first option. You’ve got to make teams respect you. You’ve got to be able to shoot it before you can get to the cup. I think he’s going to come out the next game and play aggressive basketball.

“Coach Ron Adams, Thibs, Adrian, they’re teaching me if I can get past the primary defender, there’s always going to be a help defender,” said Butler. “That’s the person you really have to score on. I’m focusing on getting past my guy and then that second defender.”

If Butler can continue that, the Bulls are going to be able to solve another mystery for their playing rotation. And just when needed.

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