NEW YORK -- The irony was not lost on Luol Deng.
As he walked past rookie Jimmy Butler in the visitors' locker room, he couldn't help but crack a smile. The rookie swingman had just polished off the best game of his young career. He scored seven points in 21 minutes of play. He played solid defense against New York Knicks' star Carmelo Anthony and even managed to knock down a huge basket with 1:29 left in the fourth quarter that gave the Bulls a much-needed cushion. The fact that he did all of this on the big basketball stage at Madison Square Garden was lost on no one. That's why Deng and his teammates were so happy for the easygoing Marquette alum.
"Jimmy!, Jimmy!," Deng chanted as he ducked out to go see some of his friends.
The adulation that comes when a young player actually contributes to a victory is something Butler could get used to.
"It felt good," Butler said. "I think it felt even better to know that the coaching staff believed in me and my teammates believed in me to take on a matchup like that, so that definitely boosted my confidence and I just went out there and played hard."
Deng wasn't the only player or coach singing Butler's praises after the game. It's clear that the rookie's performance had an impact on Thibodeau.
"We've liked him from the start," Thibodeau said. "We love his attitude and approach and the way he works every day, his demeanor. And we know he's going to get better and better. The hard thing for him is right now, we're not practicing. He's doing a lot of individual work with the assistant coaches. ... We have a lot of confidence in his ability and he's already got a defensive mindset. As he gets to learn the league and the tendencies of the players and the teams, he's only going to get better and better. But he's got a very serious approach to the game. I thought he made a lot of big plays down the stretch for us."
That fact that Butler was able to come up big in such a crucial spot did not surprise his teammates.
"I'm not surprised," Bulls point guard Derrick Rose said. "Coach loves him as a player. He comes in, does his work. He's very professional. Doesn't bother the team. He's a great rookie."
He's a rookie who figures to find some more time in the rotation now -- especially since Deng (wrist) is hurting and Rip Hamilton (thigh/groin) could be out for a while. The key for Butler, as he readily admits, is confidence. That confidence was on display in a major way thanks to his clutch jumper.
The rookie praised Deng for his guidance before the moment found him.
"When I walked over to the bench, Lu was like, 'Shoot the ball!'," Butler said. "[My teammates] were like, 'If you're open, shoot it.' So I took two jump shots right after [he said that]. I turned and I was open, I missed the first one. [Carlos Boozer] got the rebound. I go back over to the bench and Lu was like, 'See, good things happen when you shoot the ball. You miss and [we] got the offensive rebound and two points.'
"And then the next play, I looked down at the bench before [I shot] and was like, 'OK, listen to Lu.' I came off of [the screen] in one dribble and pulled up which is a type of shot I love to take. I think that fits within my game."
As long as Butler keeps playing the same way, Thibodeau is going to have no trouble finding minutes for him. The Bulls really like the way he's worked in practice, and they believe he can become a consistent rotational player down the line. That time came even sooner than expected on Thursday night.
"I think he played great," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "He played [with] a lot of heart out there. He really affected the game in a lot of ways. His defense was great, and he hit a big jump shot at the end. I'm real happy for the rook."