By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — On Friday morning amid the latest episode of a Bulls soap opera that brought to mind problems surrounding high school cliques, star Jimmy Butler expressed no regret for criticizing teammates two days earlier. He even went a step further, explaining that this type of drama — which general manager Gar Forman called “totally unacceptable” — fueled him.
“I like it,” Butler said. “I’m sorry, but I like controversy. I like it, butting heads.
“Guys butting heads and going at it and they got something to say back to somebody, I feed off that. I do. I don’t know about anybody else. I like that clash. I like when you’re put up there and you gotta show out and be the best in your role, whatever it may be.”
In the evening, Butler’s game spoke otherwise. Relegated to a reserve role alongside fellow critic Dwyane Wade as part of their punishment for publicly airing grievances, Butler responded with his worst game of the season. He scored three points on 1-of-13 shooting and recorded two assists and three turnovers in 33 minutes. It then came as no surprise that the Bulls lost 100-88 to the Heat (17-30) at the United Center, falling to 23-25 in this downward-spiraling season.
Afterward, Butler and coach Fred Hoiberg each rejected the notion that Butler’s rhythm was thrown off by a benching that lasted all of 5 minutes, 7 seconds. It was the first time Butler didn’t start in a game he played in since March 23, 2013, which was his second year in the league. It was his second-lowest point total of the season, topping only a game he left early with sickness.
Butler responded “sure — that’s on them” when asked if his benching was fair.
“I was still into it,” Butler said. “I still knew what I was supposed to be doing. I still took the shots I always take. That’s fine. You just got to better — coming off the bench, starting, help us get a win. That’s my job.”
The Bulls’ job for most of Friday was doing damage control, to little avail. In the morning, they held an unusually long team meeting to clear the air and address the critical comments made by Butler, Wade and Rajon Rondo over the previous two days. After Butler and Wade called out young Bulls teammates for not caring enough about winning and their craft following Chicago’s collapse against Atlanta on Wednesday night, Rondo took it to the next level with a pointed Instagram post Thursday afternoon. In a nearly unprecedented rebuke of a star teammate and future Hall of Famer, Rondo questioned the leadership of Butler and Wade, their accountability and their influence over the coaching staff.
Th Bulls predictably downplayed it all Friday, but the message fell on deaf ears with the performance they submitted. Their ugly loss ended with the team getting loudly booed off the floor.
“We obviously had a very emotional day,” Hoiberg said. “It’s not an excuse for how we played. It’s the worst game we’ve played all year in my opinion. It’s something where I hope what happened this morning has long-term benefits for our team. It’s something where we got to get back together. We got to work. We got to regroup.”
Like Butler, Wade had an off night as well, scoring 15 points on 6-of-17 shooting. He entered the game 28 seconds after Butler, at the 6:25 mark of the first quarter. He said he respected the Bulls’ disciplinary measure to not start him.
On the flip side, there’s little respect across the league for the Bulls’ play right now. One might say this is rock bottom, but there are still 34 games left, including a tough six-game road trip after Sunday’s home date with the 76ers.
Do the Bulls have the mental fortitude to overcome this fragile state, to use Friday’s team meeting as a spring board to something better?
“A lot of guys talked about not sleeping the last two days just talking about what’s going on with our team,” Hoiberg said. “Again, I hope what happened this morning gets us right.”
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.