By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — As the game wore on after the Bulls had squandered their 10-point third-quarter lead against the Hawks on Saturday, coach Fred Hoiberg asked star Jimmy Butler if he needed a fourth-quarter breather. Butler was only worried about the moment, nothing more or less.
“Fred was like, ‘Hey Jimmy, are you tired?'” Butler said. “And I said ‘No. I want to play. I want to be the reason we win.'”
That Butler was. In a season in which he’s ascended to another level of stardom, Butler authored another signature performance in a 106-104 win at the United Center, scoring a game-high 33 points that included the winning free throws with 2.1 seconds left.
In a nod to the significance of every game amid a playoff battle, Butler played 42-plus minutes, including all 24 in the second half while also slowing Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder (29 points) late after he’d torched the Bulls most of the night. It was the injured Dwyane Wade who several weeks ago told Butler to carry the Bulls to the playoffs so Wade would have the chance to return again this season, and Butler is living up to the calling.
“I’m just out there playing basketball,” Butler said. “I want to win. I think everybody knows that. I’m just doing what everybody asks me to do.”
Butler scored Chicago’s final nine points, including a tough 3-pointer that tied the game at 102-all and a short bank shot amid traffic to tie it at 104-all with 32.9 seconds remaining. After the Bulls defensive sub Michael Carter-Williams helped force Schroder into a turnover, Butler was then fouled on the right wing off an isolation jumper and sank the winning free throws amid chants of “MVP.”
Butler’s heroics came after rookie Denzel Valentine had made a pair of 3-pointers inside five minutes to pull Chicago within three points. Butler thought Valentine’s big shots were symbolic of the progress the Bulls have made since the last time they played the Hawks, when in January they blew a 10-point lead inside the final three minutes, which in turn led to Butler and Wade criticizing teammates and then Rajon Rondo responding to them with an incendiary Instagram post.
“Everybody’s trust level within one another,” Butler said in explaining why the Bulls are a different team. “I think our roles are a lot more clear, and that’s so very important, especially right now and moving forward. More than anything, it’s all about who’s playing the best basketball at the right time.”
Butler got help from Rajon Rondo’s big night (season-high 25 points, 11 rebounds and six assists) and Valentine’s 13 points.
“What boosts Jimmy’s confidence is when other people come along too,” Valentine said. “He was hot, then he got tired. For a second, nobody stepped up on the offensive end. So that’s a lot of pressure on one person to do that in an NBA game. As soon as a couple people step up, Jimmy gets confident again, and he wants to take it over.”
Winners of three straight, the Bulls (37-39) are now playing some of their best basketball of the season. This victory lifted Chicago into a seventh-place tie with Miami and Indiana in the East, and the Bulls hold the tiebreaker over both.
“In the beginning of the season and past this All-Star break, we had been down,” Valentine said. “In the past, we had been folding, and then it’d just get worse. Now we have a totally different mindset, that we can make the playoffs and do some things. We weren’t going to let a 10-point (deficit) after we were just up ruin our chances of going into seventh place.
“We trusted each other, and that’s something that we didn’t do when we went on that losing streak at the beginning of the All-Star break.”
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.