On Saturday night, Butler played his first game in a month, after missing the Bulls’ last 11 with a left knee strain suffered Feb. 5 in Denver. The team’s 108-100 win over the Houston Rockets also featured the surprise returns of Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson, giving Chicago as close to a fully healthy roster as it'll have with Joakim Noah out for the year with a dislocated shoulder.
“He’s huge,” teammate Derrick Rose said. “Whenever he’s got the ball, you’ve got to stick to both of us. It’s hard to pay attention to both of us when we’re on the court. And we get to catch the ball with a live dribble, so that helps the team a lot. When we stop people, we’re very dangerous, with the shooters that we have and the way me and Jimmy put pressure on the defense.”
With just over two minutes left on Saturday, Butler fouled out, ending his night with 24 points on 6-of-13 shooting. He also had 11 rebounds and six assists. Not bad for having to shake off any rust, considering his averages on the season are 22.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game.
The win put the Bulls back above .500 and into the eighth seed in the crowded lower half of the Eastern Conference playoff race. A recent stretch of lackluster play put the Bulls in serious danger of missing the postseason for the first time since 2007-08.
Not coincidentally, most of that occurred while Butler was gone.
They’re still not out of the woods on that front. Their season-long inconsistency has left them virtually zero margin for error over the final six weeks of the regular season.
Forget winning a playoff series—right now, everything goes into simply getting there. And on Saturday, it was clear that isn’t happening without Butler.
“You see the impact Jimmy has,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said after the game. “Just because of his ability to make life difficult for the elite wing players in this league. When he got in foul trouble, you saw James Harden go off a little bit.”
The Bulls’ dubious 16-game streak of allowing their opponent to score at least 100 points remained intact, but it was impossible to avoid feeling Butler's defensive presence as he went toe-to-toe with Harden.
Saturday was also the first time this season Butler shared the court with forward Mike Dunleavy, who missed the first 49 games of the campaign with a back injury and made his return while Butler was out. Having two capable wing defenders in Butler and Dunleavy gives the Bulls, above all else, enough depth to avoiding having to rely on struggling role players to carry big minutes.
“I think it helps me a lot to have Mike to space the floor,” Butler said. “And Doug [McDermott], as confident as he is now. I think it helps everybody. The flow is great. But I think the offense is always there. The defense is what will will win us games.”
After struggling to get by without him, Butler’s teammates were elated to have him back.
“Jimmy makes a huge impact at both ends of the floor,” added Pau Gasol, who led the Bulls on the night with 28 points. “Especially the defensive end. His physicality and energy make a big difference, it kind of picks everybody up and sets a tone for the rest of the guys.”
On the Bulls’ path to a late-season turnaround, this was a solid first step. It wasn’t perfect by any means (Chicago coughed up a season-high 25 turnovers, accounting for 25 Houston points), but after the events of the last month, it was encouraging.
A silver lining of Butler’s extended absence, if there is one, is a set of fresh legs when he and the Bulls need them most. He looked every bit the part of a franchise player in his return, and the next two months rest on whether he can sustain that.
“I think I was in the gym enough when I was out to maintain my game and keep my confidence up,” Butler said. “That’s what’s most important. But my teammates are telling me to just keep doing what I’m doing. Keep attacking, keep being aggressive.”
Now, with Butler and Mirotic back, the Bulls can no longer use health as an excuse for lackluster performances during these final 21 games. Their playoff lives depend on it.
All stats are accurate as of March 6, 2016.