CHICAGO -- In the midst of racking up a career-high 32 points, Jimmy Butler played so hard that one of the air pockets in his Air Jordans exploded in Saturday night's 99-90 loss to the Indiana Pacers.
Although the points are a new high, the production has become the norm for Butler in the early part of this season. Once viewed as a defensive force and offensive liability, Butler's transformation into a threat on both ends continues for a Bulls squad that looked lifeless throughout Saturday's game and would have been completely lost without Butler.
"I think each year, he's gotten better, and I think this was the next step for him," Thibodeau said after the game. "He's had his moments in the past. Last year was an up-and-down year because of all the injuries. But he's healthy, he was in great shape this summer, he got lighter, I think he understands the league really well. He's strong on both sides of the ball, and he's scoring a lot of different ways. He's getting to the line -- shoot -- probably six more times, eight more times."
Butler's aggression -- and emerging confidence on the offensive end -- are the two biggest differences in his game this season. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Butler averaged 10.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.9 free throw attempts through his first eight games of the past season. Through his first eight games this season, Butler is averaging 21.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 7.5 free throws.
"I just look to be aggressive," Butler said. "If that's taking open shots, getting to the paint, getting to the line, I think that's what I have to do -- be aggressive in my position."
But Butler's decision to get to the rim more is backed up in the numbers. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Butler came into Saturday's game averaging 5.7 field goal attempts inside 10 feet this season, out of 12.4 attempts total. Last season, over his first nine games, it was 2.8 field goal attempts inside 10 feet out of 7.6 attempts total.
So what has changed?
Butler's teammate Taj Gibson has his own idea. Like many inside the organization, Gibson believes it has a lot to do with Butler finding his confidence again.
"He got away from just being around the practice facility here," Gibson said. "He got away from Chicago for a while, got a chance to really go home, be around family, work on his game. Sometimes those things are the key to help a player really get his mind right, help his game grow, and that's exactly how he's playing right now. He worked out on his game all summer, got away and came back with a new mentality, focused.
"He understands he's a starter. We look for him to come in and be aggressive. When you're a starter, you got to be aggressive. You got to come in and do the right things, and he's doing all those things I told him he was capable of doing years ago. Just now, as a starter, he's taking all the jump shots, being aggressive, being real acrobatic going to the basket, and he's playing well. His defense is extremely [good] already, so you have the combination, I think he's great."
So does Thibodeau. The veteran coach has been raving about Butler over the past couple months and knows how important the 25-year-old swingman has been on both ends. Now it's up to Butler to maintain that confidence as he continues pushing for a contract extension that will come -- from somewhere -- this summer. The Bulls and Butler's representatives could not come to an agreement before the Oct. 31 deadline, but if Butler continues putting up huge numbers night after night, he will likely get all the money he wants.
He's not surprised he keeps putting up those numbers.
"I'm very confident in myself," Butler said. "I have to stay confident. But points or no points, we got to win games."
Saturday night is an aberration in that regard. If Butler keeps playing the way he is, the Bulls will continue to win plenty of games with him on the floor.