CHICAGO — This is exactly what Jimmy Butler envisioned when he decided to bet on himself in October.
He turned down an extension offer from the Chicago Bulls at the beginning of the season, thinking he could do better as a restricted free agent this summer. What followed has been a career year that included his first All-Star appearance and will likely see him taking home Most Improved Player hardware sometime in the near future.
The only missing piece for Butler to establish himself as a true star was a signature playoff performance.
Now, he has that.
Butler followed up his 25-point performance in Saturday’s Game 1 win over the Milwaukee Bucks with an even better showing Monday. He scored 31 points, a postseason career high, on 10-of-19 shooting along with nine rebounds, including a 14-point fourth quarter that helped the Bulls put away the Bucks late for a 91-82 win.
The turnaround, in a game that up until that point had been the definition of ugly, grind-it-out playoff basketball, came with about seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Butler drove past Bucks center Zaza Pachulia and threw down an authoritative two-handed dunk that woke up a dormant United Center crowd:
“After he did that, he was really feeling himself,” said Joakim Noah after the game.
About a minute later, Butler connected on a three-pointer to give the Bulls a 10-point lead. He would make another three later on to help the Bulls put the Bucks away. It capped off a star performance from a player who, as much as he’s resisted the label over the course of the year, has undeniably emerged as one.
Since the start of the Derrick Rose era, from his MVP campaign in 2010-11 to the three playoffs Chicago played without him, the Bulls have been looking for another go-to scorer for exactly these moments—someone they could turn to when they were forced to play either without Rose or around an off night from him.
That’s why the Bulls aggressively pursued Carmelo Anthony last summer in free agency—precisely for moments like this. Rose shot 4-of-14 from the field Monday, and nobody else was doing much of anything against the Bucks’ physical, swarming defense. Without Butler, they might be going into Milwaukee on Thursday with a tied series, not with a commanding two-games-to-none lead.
“I took a lot of really bad shots, but I think it was in the flow of the game,” said Butler. “My teammates told me not to pass up shots, so I heat-checked a few times, and they just happened to go in.”
That confidence to keep shooting is something Butler has developed throughout a season that has forced him to take a lead role at times. Rose has either been out or playing inconsistently for most of the year, opening up plenty of opportunities for Butler to step up.
Now that Rose is healthy again, Butler’s ability to take over a game is not the be-all, end-all of the Bulls’ playoff hopes. But it’s still critically important, and it shows why he’s the perfect backcourt partner for Rose—the second option that has eluded the Bulls for so long.
“Everybody pays attention to [Rose] probably more than they pay attention to me,” Butler said. “So all I have to do is step up and make shots, get to the cup, get to the free-throw line. All because of him and Pau and Jo, I think I have a pretty easy job.”
An easy job, yes, but an important one nonetheless. And there’s no better opportunity for Butler than on this stage. It’s a perfect situation for him to find himself in as he prepares to hope the Bulls, or another team, throw a lot of money at him in July in restricted free agency. He’s going to get paid by somebody, one way or another, and deservedly so.
Most likely, that team will be the Bulls. He’s making it abundantly clear that they can’t afford to lose him.
He’s too important at both ends of the floor, taking on the most daunting defensive assignment (in this series, Giannis Antetokounmpo) and stepping confidently into the closer role on the offensive end.
“He played really well,” said Noah. “Jimmy’s a hard worker, and it’s paying off at the most important time of the year. He’s playing great basketball.”
Sean Highkin covers the Chicago Bulls for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @highkin.