By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — In a season in which Bulls wing Jimmy Butler has played the best basketball of his life, he authored a chapter Monday night that arguably can go down as the best of his career.
With sidekick Dwyane Wade sidelined with knee soreness, point guard Rajon Rondo’s benching stretching into a second full game and the Bulls desperately needing a victory amid what they’ve admitted is a season’s crossroads, Butler scored a season-high 52 points to lead Chicago past the Charlotte, 118-111. His final two points came at the free-throw line as he was serenaded with “MVP” chants from the United Center crowd, a tune he later called “a little over my head” in a performance coach Fred Hoiberg said was “an understatement to say Jimmy was phenomenal.”
“Loved his aggressiveness,” Hoiberg said. “I thought his tempo was really good. He didn’t force the issue at all tonight. He just kind of took what the defense gave him.”
Butler took a lot, as his 52 points were one off his career-high of 53, set against the lowly 76ers in January 2016. Butler shot 15-of-24 on this night and went 21-of-22 at the line to tie his career-high for free throws made while adding 12 rebounds and six assists. In doing so, he became the first Bull to score 50 points at the United Center since Michael Jordan did so on April 27, 1997.
“That was part of the plan coming out, to be aggressive, get to the rim, shoot the shot when you’re open, see if you have a rhythm going,” said Butler, who’s averaging a career-best 25.3 points.
“I was passing the ball a lot early. Late, I stopped passing the ball, which is probably a bad thing. But I think that was the goal — be aggressive from start to finish.”
Perhaps the biggest compliment to Butler’s dominance was that it didn’t come at the expense of teammates. He had five first-half assists, six in total, and he was aggressive in his decision-making and attacking all evening. That led to quality movement in general for the Bulls, who had five others score between nine and 12 points.
Included in those contributions were nine points from reserve point guard Jerian Grant and nine points from reserve wing Denzel Valentine, who left the game with a left ankle sprain and didn’t return.
“We just need them to play with confidence, keep working on their games and know whenever they get the ball, they can attack, they can shoot, they can play basketball, because that’s why they’re here,” Butler said. “That’s why they’re here. We try to make them remember that.”
That Butler’s heroics came with Wade and Rondo not taking the court will leave Hoiberg with plenty to ponder moving forward. The brand of basketball the Bulls played Monday — marked by better spacing, quicker pace, quicker decision-making and rim attacks, though not quality 3-point shooting — is more similar to what Hoiberg wants than what he’s seen for long stretches this season.
Are the Bulls better with Butler playing more in a point-guard role for longer stretches? Would that work with Wade expected back Wednesday at Cleveland? How long will Rondo continue to be benched? Can Butler continue carrying such a burden?
Those are probably questions to address Tuesday. On Monday, it was again about Butler’s continued brilliance.
“I just need to do whatever it takes for the team to win,” Butler said. “Yeah, I’m supposed to score a few points here and there.”
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.