By Cody Westerlund-
(CBS) CHICAGO – After yet another do-everything performance in a 92-76 win against the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday at the United Center, Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler was left with but one beef.
“Damn, I got a tech,” Butler said. “I’ve never got a tech before, too. That’s the worst part about it.”
As he spoke, Butler had a wide grin on his face in the locker room. He and Nets guard Joe Johnson were at the center of a scrum midway through the third quarter that resulted in some pushing and coaches from both teams taking to the court to separate players.
Moments after Johnson had been called for an offensive foul with Butler in his grill – this was a theme, with Butler limiting the All-Star to 11 points on 4-of-14 shooting – the two exchanged words. TV replays appeared to then show Johnson poking Butler in the head when trying to point at him, which didn’t sit well with Butler, who escalated the situation.
For their roles, each was assessed a technical foul, which Butler insisted was the first of his two-and-a-half-year NBA career.
“I try to not let people get under my skin, but you can only take so much,” said Butler, who added 14 points, five rebounds and four assists.
While the altercation was out of character for Butler, it was certainly fitting for the Bulls, who for the second straight game abused their foe on the boards, this time with a stunning defensive rebounding percentage of 90.0. Mired at 12-18 when the new year began and with the cloud of another lost season of Derrick Rose hanging over them, the Bulls have used their typical stout defense and a fighting spirit to climb to 27-25 at the All-Star break, good for fourth place in the East and just a game behind the third-place Raptors.
It’s not the route Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau envisioned, but it’s a spot he’s proud to be in.
“Just the ability to endure and get through adversity,” Thibodeau said when asked what’s put his team in this position. “Nobody hung their head. We took some hits, a lot of hits early, you know on the road and to more than just Derrick. To dig out of the hole, I think it shows a lot a spirit, a lot of will and determination.
“We have the belief that we can win.”
In so many ways, Butler represents who these offensively challenged Bulls are. He’s had his ups and downs. He’s largely a limited offensive player, averaging 12.3 points and shooting just 37 percent from the field and 27 percent from 3-point land entering Thursday. At 6-foot-7, 220 pounds, he’s a terrific athlete but not a creator.
Butler’s also a brilliant defender, accepting of any challenge and willing to do anything his coach might ask of him – like playing 60 minutes in a triple-overtime win against the Magic or simply 46 on a more routine Thursday against the Nets.
“Jimmy’s playing great basketball,” Bulls center Joakim Noah said. “I think the sky’s the limit for him. I think he can be even better. He got the heart of a lion, and he’s had that since day one. I think the more he understands where he’s comfortable getting his scores, it’s going to get ugly.”
Noah, of course, meant “ugly” in the most complimentary way possible. That term was probably fitting too, for as the Bulls head into the All-Star break, rarely has anything been a Rembrandt.
In the big picture, beating a Brooklyn team that despite a recent hot streak still appears to be a mess – the Nets spent more time complaining to the officials than they did on the glass (four offensive rebounds) or sharing the ball (12 assists, 15 turnovers) – should mean little to Chicago.
What should mean a lot, however, is the season-long progression, Noah said.
“We’re getting better,” Noah said.
“We’re enjoying the grind. I like our mindset just going into every game. There’s a toughness about us, and I’m proud to be a part of that.”
Cody Westerlund is sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.