By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — The full Jimmy Butler experience was on display Thursday night.
From his game-high 29 points to his brilliant all-around floor play to his dogged defense late on prolific Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas, Butler was front and center, as he has been for the Bulls all season. And never was that more evident than in the waning seconds, after which Butler’s confidence meter maxed out at “Peak Jimmy.”
With the Bulls trailing 103-102 with 8.4 seconds left, Butler took a sideline inbounds pass and methodically waited and waited on the right wing. With space cleared out, Butler eventually drove inside the arc, with Marcus Smarts still clinging to him. His game-winning jump shot attempt fell short as the horn sounded, but a late whistle from official Zach Zarba on a controversial foul call sent the Celtics into a disbelieving frenzy — Thomas would later call it “horrible” — and Butler to the line for two free throws.
After time was placed back on the clock, Butler sank both, and the Bulls prevailed for a 104-103 win at the United Center when Al Horford missed a tough shot from the corner.
“A foul is a foul,” said Butler, who shot 9-of-20 from the field, 9-of-9 from the line and added seven assists. “He hit my elbow. I don’t care what nobody says. I think I make if he doesn’t alter it like that.
“We got the look that we wanted.”
As he did at least once earlier this season, Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg explained the final play call as “get it to Jimmy.” There was an option for a blur screen, but Butler declined it and took the game upon himself. Asked why Butler waited so long to attack — typically teams trailing leave themselves time to get an offensive rebound in the event of a miss — Hoiberg said simply to ask Butler himself.
Butler’s answer reflected the self-confidence that has helped fuel his rise to stardom and has him headed to his third straight All-Star Game, this time as a starter.
“It’s what the game tells you to do,” Butler said. “To tell you the truth, I thought I was going to make the shot. I’m sorry I don’t think I’m going to miss and look forward to an offensive rebound. I think my teammates say I’m going to hit the shot as well. Coach said, ‘Make a play,’ and that’s what I did.”
Butler’s heroics included the fourth-quarter defensive assignment on the 5-foot-9 Thomas, the NBA second-leading scorer overall and its leading scorer in the fourth quarter. The Butler-Thomas matchup was terrific theatre down the stretch, as Thomas scored 11 fourth-quarter points on 3-of-8 shooting while Butler had a crucial block on him with 1:10 left.
“It’s what he wants,” Hoiberg said of the burden Butler carries for the Bulls. “It’s what the great players want. Looking back in the history of the great ones, they want all that on their plate. Jimmy is no exception. He’s a guy that’s going to go out and take the challenge, anything that is given to him. He pays it off more often than not.”
The Bulls’ victory was, remarkably, their 17th consecutive win in a TNT Thursday game at home. It’s a streak that dates back to January 2013 and is so odd that Taj Gibson remarked the team is aware but didn’t want to discuss it earlier Thursday, so as not to jinx it.
It’s a streak that also reflects Chicago’s ability to rise up in higher-profile games. Now, the Bulls’ challenge is to string together better play against all foes. With the All-Star break upon them, the Bulls sit at 28-29, alone in seventh place in the East, a game ahead of eighth-place Pistons and two games ahead of the ninth-place Bucks.
“It’s big, all wins are,” Butler said. “We can’t be satisfied. We can’t settle now. We have to start winning these games and get over .500, keep moving forward.”
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.