CHICAGO — A real, actual Chicago Bulls playoff game featured Jimmy Butler at point guard, Isaiah Canaan exhumed to log significant and meaningful playoff minutes in an 11-man rotation, Robin Lopez losing a shoe and attempting to untie an opponent’s sneaker as reprisal and Derrick Rose receiving a massive ovation from the United Center crowd. So the Bulls are super weird. This part isn’t unnerving, because they’ve been super weird all season. This is the part that’s the problem: The predominant approach to Game 4 against the Celtics was arguably as normal and sensible as possible, and it didn’t work all that great.
The only thing that will realistically make a difference in this series, at this point, is the Bulls’ best player playing incredible basketball, heaving the entire operation on his back and attempting to create something on every trip for himself and everyone else, with superhuman results. And Jimmy Butler tried hard to do this on Sunday. His coaches and his team manipulated dang near everything to ensure he could do it. Everyone tried exceptionally hard to adhere to the stars-win-series formula that is pretty much all the Bulls have left. So Butler logged 46 minutes and posted 33 points and nine assists and five rebounds while shooting 23 free throws one game after shooting none. And his team lost 104–95. The club that ran to a staggering 2–0 series lead now just staggers. The most plausible solution available was not enough of a solution at all.
We learned Sunday that the Bulls are hilariously adept at loosening knots. So here’s another one: Butler, the best and most effectual countermeasure Chicago can throw at Boston, put up those big numbers and was still a minus-6 for the night. “We made a point to put him in different positions on the floor, and he did the rest, by being very aggressive,” Bulls guard Dwyane Wade said. “That’s what we want from him. Now it’s our job, when he gets on the ball and he drives, we gotta make shots, we gotta knock them down, we gotta be ready. If we’re going to allow him to play that way, we gotta be ready as his teammates to help him and make timely shots.”
Whether Butler needs to be superhumanly better (he did shoot just 7 of 16 from the floor in Game 4) or whether the supporting cast needs to do some legitimate supporting (Wade, for one, managed just 11 points and one free throw attempt) is almost moot. “It wasn’t enough” versus “He wasn’t good enough” is sort of a distinction without much of a difference at this point, given the circumstances. Rajon Rondo will remain a well compensated—albeit one-handed—pregame warm-up facilitator for the near future. The path to addressing what was lost when the lone truly viable point guard on the roster fractured his thumb runs through Butler. However that’s supposed to work for the Bulls, it just has to work.
That’s quite a burden for Butler to drag along to Boston for even just one night. That’s an enormous burden to manage for two or three more postseason games, at minimum. “That’s what my team needs me to do,” Butler said. “I want to win. So if I have to play the whole game, if that’s what coach asks (of) me and my teammates think I can do that, I’m cool with that.” He pointed out that a basketball game features timeouts and, especially in the case of an increasingly chippy series, the occasional technical foul that requires a few minutes of sorting out. “I’ll rest during those,” Butler said. “Other than that, I’m going to be out there battling.”
It’s a noble attitude. And it was an inspired approach Sunday, too; Butler was put in isolations early and zealously attacked the rim to compensate for what was lacking just one game earlier. A pair of first-quarter free throws ended a personal streak of 68:38 without a trip to the line in the series. Butler had 14 free throw attempts at the half; the Celtics, as a team, had 15. “Jimmy did a great job attacking them,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. Still, it seemed to exact a toll, perhaps since no one else came along for the ride. With 26.2 seconds left in the third quarter, after rallying his team from what was a 20-point deficit to an unlikely lead only to succumb to another Celtics run that created another double-digit hole, Butler drove strong and headlong to the rim. He was fouled and his momentum carried him past the end line.
There he stopped, and took a seat on the basket stanchion, grabbing the edge of his shorts.
It took everything to keep the Bulls in it and bring them back. It very clearly seemed to take a lot out of Butler as well.
Undoubtedly, Butler will require some assistance. On Sunday, the Bulls were close to relevant maybe only because Isaiah Canaan happened. With all other post-Rondo point guard options failing entirely, Hoiberg found the third-year guard like you find the the half-empty bag of chips when you’re incredibly starved and reach way into the way back of the pantry. This was Isaiah Canaan scoring 13 points in 34 minutes after recording more DNP-CDs than floor time after the All-Star Break. “We always preach about staying ready,” Canaan said. “It’s a long season and you never know what’s going to happen. I have teammates that kept me locked in, kept pushing me and telling me, your opportunity is going to come.”
Butler had his own interpretation of that surprise effort—“I can tell you it means that he’s going to play,” he declared—but to expect more of the same from someone so long an afterthought is to tempt fate and invite disappointment, especially when he has to deal with Isaiah Thomas over the long haul. The Bulls need more than Isaiah Canaan. They need Butler to pull a rope with 10 other guys attached to it, and they need those 10 guys to cut the rope-puller some slack occasionally. It isn’t the preferred way of doing this, but the preferred way was lost when doctors slapped a hulking plaster cast on Rondo’s right arm. This is what the Bulls have left.
They remain feisty, with Hoiberg taking officials to task over officiating Thomas (“If you allow him to discontinue his dribble, it’s impossible to guard him,” a fired-up Bulls coach said) and Butler firing salvos at Celtics guard Marcus Smart after the two engaged in a verbal dust-up during the proceedings (“He’s a great actor, acting tough,” Butler said. “He’s not about that life”). But the real fight is against attrition. The slog is on. The only way out of it is through one star player and someone or anyone or everyone doing something of use as well.
It’s not ideal. It’s not aesthetically pleasing. It just is what it is. And who knows how long Jimmy Butler can last at it. But there the Bulls forward was Sunday evening, stretched out over two locker room chairs when Hoiberg stopped by to offer some whispered counsel. Butler absorbed it and gave his muted but emphatic approval of whatever message was delivered. And then he told his coach he’d come into work early on Monday.