By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) – As coach Fred Hoiberg drew up the final play for star wing Jimmy Butler with 12.6 seconds left in a game his Bulls found themselves tied in against the lowly Nets on Wednesday night at the United Center, Butler’s mind was already stirring.
Hoiberg’s instructions were simple to the other four Bulls taking the court: “Get the hell out of his way and let him go to work.”
Butler’s mind then arrived on a key decision just as quickly as Hoiberg had offered his line of strategy.
“I knew what move I was going to do,” Butler said. “I knew.”
To that point, Butler had willed the Bulls back into a game in which their ugliest traits plagued them, threatening to tag them with the type of setback they can ill afford if they’re to make the playoffs. Fellow star Dwyane Wade was back in the locker room, icing his neck and taking medicine as he suffered from a migraine and blurred vision. The rest of Butler’s teammates had shot a combined 35.5 percent.
So the ball was figuratively and literally in Butler’s court. He dribbled beyond the arc, crept forward, then lived up to Hoiberg’s request by drilling a stepback 20-foot jumper to his left over the outstretched arms of 6-foot-8 defender Bojan Bogdanovic as the buzzer sounded.
The final bucket gave the Bulls a 101-99 win and Butler 40 points, which matched a season-high. He scored 27 of those points in the second half, 13 in the fourth quarter, while shooting 14-of-29 overall and adding 11 rebounds, four assists and four steals. And it all came after Butler rolled his right ankle with about five minutes left, which hurt “really bad” at the time but which he later called “good.”
“All I could see was my trainer (Chris Johnson) standing up the entire time,” Butler said of the lead-in to the final sequence. “He was like, ‘You better shoot it.’ I was like, ‘What else am I going to do?’ So like literally, that’s what I was paying attention to, because he was like, ‘Yo, you got to do this move.’ I did a rhythm I do every single day, every single night. It went in.”
Butler’s big night and winning bucket – his first buzzer beater as a pro – couldn’t have been more timely for the Bulls, who were outscored 39-9 from behind the 3-point arc, fell into a 9-0 hole early against a Nets team (8-23) that entered with one road win and trailed 97-90 with 2:30 left. The victory moved Chicago to 16-16 and avoided another “Is that the worst loss of the year?” conversation.
A couple days prior, Hoiberg had agreed with the assessment that the Bulls were reaching a crossroads. Butler sensed that too in taking over the game and making a point to return after just 27 seconds of game time had elapsed after his ankle injury, which prompted the entire Bulls bench to surround him and help him off the floor.
“D-Wade was in the back, I needed to come out here and put on for D-Wade,” Butler said.
“We desperately need every win, not just this one. But the way the game was going, I guess I had a hot hand. Coach and players were like, ‘Hey, make something happen.’ In the end, I did just that.”
Wade left the locker room and embraced Butler shortly after his game-winner.
“He’s just confident and has that swagger down the stretch,” Wade said. “He was big when we needed it. It was a big-time shot. This guy’s been having an unbelievable year, and that’s just fitting that he made a shot like that, that he ended the game the way he did. I love to see the growth in him. I’m proud of him, happy for him.
“Sometimes your best player has got to be your best player.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. He’s also the co-host of the @LockedOnBulls podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes and Stitcher. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.