MIAMI — Jimmy Butler got into the Chicago starting lineup about six weeks ago, his break coming when a slew of Bulls were dealing with injuries.
He hasn’t come off the bench since.
And lately, he hasn’t been on the bench at all — literally.
Butler’s role right now is to be the Bulls’ ironman. NBA regulation games last 48 minutes, and even the guys with the biggest workloads get a little break every now and then. But Butler has played every second of Chicago’s last three games, and going back to when he entered Game 5 of his team’s first-round series against Brooklyn for the final time, he’s been on the court for the last 148 minutes, 29 seconds of Bulls’ basketball.
“It’s all about the rest that you get in between,” Butler said. “I feel like I’ll do whatever it takes for this team to win.”
His consecutive-minute streak will almost certainly grow Wednesday night, when he’s scheduled to start Game 2 of Chicago’s Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Miami Heat. Barring injury or foul trouble, it would not be a surprise if Butler played all 48 minutes again, given how banged-up and depleted the Bulls are on the perimeter these days.
So, go figure. A player from Marquette is one of the biggest stories after one game of this Chicago-Miami series, and his name is not Dwyane Wade.
“He’s in shape,” said Wade, who scored 1,281 points in his two Marquette seasons — four points more than Butler had in his three seasons there. “The guy is in shape. To be able to play that many minutes in a row, obviously a lot of guys can’t do that. And still be aggressive on the offensive end, and defensively be able to guard different guys, he’s special in that sense. That’s why Marquette chose him.”
Butler scored 21 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in Chicago’s Game 1 win over the reigning NBA champions on Monday night, just the fifth double-double of his young career. Most impressively, though, he spent virtually the entire game guarding Miami’s LeBron James, now a four-time MVP who tried to barrel through the slimmer Butler on a number of occasions.
James scored 24 points, and simply overmatched Butler at times down the stretch. But Butler never backed down, and the Bulls got their Game 1 win.
“He does what we need,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said.
That’s why the Bulls used the final first-round pick of the 2011 draft on Butler, who typically plays either shooting guard or small forward for the Bulls.
A year ago, he averaged 2.6 points in 42 regular-season games and was on the floor for only four minutes — total — in Chicago’s six postseason contests. Now he’s a starter, and more than that, he’s starting to look like a star in the making.
“He came in with a defensive mindset, but he’s got a lot of intangibles,” Thibodeau said. “Strength, body balance, discipline, intelligence, multiple-effort mentality, really works at it, great work ethic. And I think when you have those type of qualities you continue to improve. So he’s gotten better and better.”
Thibodeau was asked if he considered giving Butler even a brief rest in Game 1. He shook his head.
Anyone who’s followed the Bulls’ rotation in recent weeks shouldn’t be surprised by that development.
Since March 24, the date that Butler was inserted into the starting lineup again after spending virtually the entire season as a reserve, Butler has played 910 minutes — by far the most in the NBA over that span. Bulls forward Carlos Boozer is No. 2 at 829. And to put Butler’s workload over the last six weeks in even more perspective, consider that Miami’s Ray Allen leads his team with 480 minutes played over that stretch.
When Butler left the Bulls’ team video session in their posh hotel Tuesday, he found a comfy-looking chair, grabbed a seat and relaxed for the next half-hour.
The rest of his itinerary for the day looked like this: As little as possible.
“Maybe sit outside in the sun,” Butler said. “But definitely stay off your feet. You’ve got to take care of the things that take care of you.”
He looked both spent and exhilarated after Game 1. Beating the champions and the NBA’s top overall seed in these playoffs, in their building, when your team is a colossal underdog will do that.
“I was tired, but I was excited,” Butler said. “Adrenalin still pumping. Big win down here in Miami, and that’s definitely hard to do. So when I did shut it down, I definitely did get some rest.”
Good thing. He’ll need it.