The Bulls got a boost from an unlikely source in their 105-102 victory over the New York Knicks on Thursday night -- unlikely to us, anyway.
Luol Deng and Joakim Noah knew it all the time that Jimmy Butler could play. And the unheralded rookie from Marquette proved them right with a solid all-around effort in the fourth quarter of a tight game on what is generally considered the NBA's biggest stage -- Madison Square Garden.
Playing all but nine seconds of the fourth quarter -- by far his biggest his most significant minutes of the season -- Butler scored four points and put the clamps on Knicks all-star forward Carmelo Anthony to help the Bulls hold on for the victory.
Butler came in averaging 6.4 minutes per game -- mostly in garbage time. But he helped hold Anthony to four points on 1-of-6 shooting in the fourth quarter after Anthony had scored 12 points on 6-of-10 shooting in the third quarter, when the Knicks outscored the Bulls 31-22 to get within 77-75.
''It felt good. I think it felt even better to know that the coaching staff believed in me and my teammates believed in me to take on a matchup like that [against Anthony],'' Butler said.''That definitely boosted my confidence. I just went out and played hard.''
Butler's defensive mentality might not excite the masses, but it fits coach Tom Thibodeau's approach perfectly. That's why he was on the court in such a big game. Anything on offense was a bonus.
''We've liked him from the start,'' Thibodeau said. ''It's hard to judge right now. But we love his attitude and his approach -- his demeanor. And we know he's going to get better and better.''
Butler played six minutes in the Bulls' first eight games this season. But he's gotten double-digit minutes the past three games -- 13 against the Wizards, 19 in a 98-82 loss to the 76ers and 21 against the Knicks. With Deng still out with a wrist injury, Butler figures to see more significant playing time after his performance against the Knicks.
''The hard thing for him is we're not practicing,'' Thibodeau said. ''He's doing a lot of individual work with the assistant coaches. We have a lot of confidence in his ability. He already has a defensive mindset. As he gets to learn the league and the tendencies of the players and the teams he's only going to get better and better. He's got a very serious approach to the game.''
Butler also made key contributions on offense. He hit two free throws to give the Bulls an 86-81 lead with 8:35 to go. And he confidently hit a pull-up jumper with 1:10 to play that gave the Bulls a 101-96 lead. He didn't seem like the guy to take the shot in that situation, but he took it anyway -- a good sign for the Bulls.
''The crazy thing is I'm not that person,'' Butler said. ''But when I walked over to the bench, Lu [Deng] was like, 'Shoot the ball. If you're open, shoot it.' So I took two jump shots like right after. I missed the first one, Booz [Carlos Boozer] got the rebound and Lu was like, 'See, good things happen when you shoot the ball. You miss, we got the offensive rebound, two points.
''The next play, I looked down at the bench before and I was like, 'OK, listen to Lu.' and I came off of it in one dribble and pulled up, which is a type of shot I love to take. I think it fits within my game.''