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Jimmy Butler's star shines brightest in Bulls' win over Suns

PHOENIX -- Jimmy Butler believes he belongs on this stage.

The 26-year-old has always been emboldened by the belief he was better than critics thought. He knew all the hours and days he spent working on his game in gyms all across the country would pay off. But Wednesday night's 103-97 win over the Phoenix Suns provided another glimpse of just how much Butler's confidence has grown in the last year.

Playing without Derrick Rose because of a sprained left ankle, Butler scored a game-high 32 points on Wednesday, 14 of which came in the fourth quarter. Butler always believed he was the best player on the court when he was playing, now his game is able to back up that assertion. He wants to be the guy to take -- and make -- the big shots at the end of games and he's embracing the pressure.

"It just shows how far I've come," he said, "and how I've worked on my game to be able to score the ball late and for my teammates that know my ability to score the ball. That's the utmost respect coming from them to me, and me returning the favor because I'm showing that I can put the ball in the basket."

Butler knows the Chicago Bulls are a better team with Rose on the court. He also knows leading his team to a victory in mid-November isn't worth getting all worked up over. But the fact Butler pulled off the performance without Rose is another marker of how much development his game has undergone. Butler was the one giving his teammates some words of wisdom in the pregame huddle after the starters were introduced -- a role that usually falls on Rose. Butler was the one in the fourth quarter who showed some uncharacteristic emotion after draining a jumper on rookie Devin Booker and getting fouled. It was Butler, not Rose on this night, who set the tone for the rest of his teammates to follow.

"He was phenomenal," Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg said. "He just took the game over. Offense, defense, he was guarding the best player. I tried to take him out -- he wouldn't let me. He did it all for us in that fourth quarter. ... It was almost like his energy went up as the game went on in that fourth quarter. That's what big-time performers do. They step up when you need it most, and that's certainly what Jimmy did tonight."

The Butler-Rose leadership narrative has been put under the microscope all summer. Butler hasn't hidden from the fact he wants to be more vocal and take a more prominent role with the team's hierarchy, but he still seems deferential to Rose given his accomplishments and longtime tenure in Chicago. The intriguing part of Wednesday's game was it was Rose giving Butler a few words of wisdom before he stepped on the court.

"I talked to him about it before the game," Butler said of knowing he had to be more aggressive without Rose playing. "He's always been telling me to shoot the ball more and be even more aggressive. So it helps to have a superstar like him in my corner coaching me up. Obviously we want him out there on the floor with us and hopefully we get him back for the next one."

The difference these days is that Butler is proving the Bulls still have a chance to win games when he is the No. 1 option. He might brush off talk of carrying a team, as he tried to do late Wednesday, but he wants the responsibility that comes with that. His teammates and coaches can see it in the way he plays.

"He loves it," Hoiberg said. "He loves having that pressure on his shoulders. He made play after play. We had to find a way to get him the ball, and our guys did a great job of that."

Butler made a field goal or drew free throws on six different primary defenders Wednesday, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He played a season-high 43 minutes. Aside from the season high in points, he also had six rebounds, two assists, and one steal. Butler might not be considered a superstar just yet, but as been the case throughout his career, he's doing everything he can to change people's perceptions.

"Jimmy's that guy," veteran point guard Kirk Hinrich said. "He's one of the best two-way players in the league, and he was huge for us tonight."