MILWAUKEE -- Nobody believes in Jimmy Butler more than Butler believes in himself. In his evolution from a defense-first swingman with an unreliable jump shot to a two-time All-Star with a max contract, the biggest difference in the 26-year-old's game relates to his confidence.
Butler always believed he was a great player; now he believes he can take over the game whenever he wants. The latest example of that burgeoning confidence came in Sunday's 102-98 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks.
Butler's numbers were solid all night; he was 10-for-11 from the field for 25 points. He added eight assists and five rebounds in 38 minutes, on top of slowing down Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo at times. He did everything for a Chicago Bulls team that needed every bit of it. But it's what Butler did in the waning moments that has lifted his game to another level this season. As he did Sunday night, Butler had no fear in both taking -- and making -- the biggest shots of the night. Without Derrick Rose (elbow) and Taj Gibson (rib), Butler put the Bulls on his shoulders and pulled them across the finish line after the team had almost blown a 19-point lead. After it was over, the proud Tomball, Texas, native not only wore a look of satisfaction on his face, he wore his baby blue Marquette jersey from college with the Butler nameplate and 33 stitched in.
"I think I kind of have to do it now," Butler said of being the go-to guy down the stretch. "I think everybody looks at me to do so with the deal that I just signed. And being one of the better players on this team, you know what I mean? I think when Fred is putting the ball in my hand of late, he knows I"m going to make the right decision. Whether it's to shoot the ball or to pass it."
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg praised Butler's decision-making down the stretch and knows his team would have been in deep trouble had it not been for Butler pulling the group through at the end.
"It's a lot because of how much energy he puts into guarding on the other end of the floor," Hoiberg said. "So he wants the ball in his hands and he's done a great job for us closing out games. We get in a close, low-possession game like that, Jimmy's the guy with the ball in his hands that generally has made the right play. Especially as the year has gone on, you can see him getting more comfortable in that role."
The intriguing part of the postgame question-and-answer sessions was that both Hoiberg and Butler sidestepped a question regarding whether the Bulls are almost better off in late-game situations when Butler is on the floor without Rose. Hoiberg gave the predictable answer that the Bulls are a better team with Rose on the floor, but Butler desperately wants the pressure and prestige that comes with taking the biggest shots.
Butler has always pointed to his work ethic as the reason why he is so confident, but without Rose on the floor, Butler is basically given free rein to do what he wants. He thrives in the isolation game and enjoys the mantle that comes with being the player charged to take the final shots.
Whether the Bulls decide to build around Butler as the face of the franchise and the star of the show remains to be seen. His name has popped up in trade rumors recently, much to the surprise of many around the league. Those rumors, at least in part, are because his relationship with some of his teammates, especially a few of the veterans, has soured over time because of his assertion of wanting to be the team's "go-to guy."
Butler has made it clear both with his play and his actions that he wants the pressure and responsibility that the game's elite deal with on a nightly basis. Is he ready to handle the potential criticism if and when things don't go right as well?
"I'm fine with that," Butler said. "I like all the weight on my shoulders to tell you the truth. It will only make me better. I love criticism because I like to silence my doubters. I love that. I love that s---."