MIAMI -- If Taj Gibson had a soapbox he would have stepped on it in front of his locker late Monday night as he discussed the performance of his friend and teammate Jimmy Butler in the Chicago Bulls' surprising 93-86 win over the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
"Jimmy's talented. A lot of people don't understand that," Gibson said defiantly after Butler racked up 21 points and 14 rebounds while playing 48 minutes for the third consecutive game. "He's really talented and he goes out there and does the job, doesn't talk back, just grits it out each and every night and he's getting better each game I think.
"It's only his second year and he's just flourishing in his role and getting more minutes and building more confidence. And people are going to know who Jimmy Butler is soon."
Butler was a difference-maker not only because of offense. His most important contribution was his ability to frustrate LeBron James throughout the night. James had 24 points, but he only had nine through three quarters because Butler made sure to hound him all over the floor. Without Luol Deng (illness) in the lineup, the Marquette alum made Deng proud. Butler noted that it was a key piece of advice from Deng, who has spent much of the last three days in a hospital after a negative reaction to a spinal tap, that allowed him to succeed.
"I talked to Lu before the game," Butler said. "And he was like, 'Take up (James') space, make everything tough for him, challenge every shot.' And of course, no layups. I feel I don't want to give layups to anybody, make them earn it from the stripe.
"But Lu's going to rest up, and we want him back, but until now, I guess I'll be stuck guarding him."
Instead of becoming a weakness, that has now turned into a strength for the Bulls. Butler plays without fear, especially on the defensive end. He's not afraid to get in James' face because he trusts the defensive principles that Tom Thibodeau has taught him. Butler's success in this game, like that of his team, may have come as a surprise by many -- but not to the guys who have seen him work day after day in the gym.
"He's a tough kid," Thibodeau said. "Mentally tough, and that's what we need him to do right now. We're short-handed. We've got a number of guys playing big minutes, and that's what we need."
The Bulls need Butler to keep doing exactly what he did Monday night in order to win this series. The question is can he get any rest after logging so many minutes over the past few weeks? He's played over 40 minutes a night for the past month. With Deng out for an unknown amount of time that number isn't going down anytime soon.
"He sleeps enough," Gibson said with a laugh. "He's young. It's only his second year in the league. He understands his role, he understands what this team needs. Whenever we're down we can always count on Jimmy. Without Lu in there Jimmy just stepped up big and we just helped him. Whenever a guy needs help, we just help each other out."
Butler gains more confidence every time out on the floor; his older teammates view him as the little brother who is starting to come into his own.
"I'm really proud of him," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "(He's a) young player, but he played huge against the best. He's like a brother and to see him shine the way he's been shining in these playoffs ... I knew he was ready but the sky's the limit for that kid."