CHICAGO — Great playoff performances always end at the podium, and there sat Joakim Noah. The longtime Bulls center, both positional and emotional, had been here before, holding court at the microphone after a postseason win. He’d been banged up all year, looked healthy in this one and done Noah things: grabbed 19 rebounds, collected five assists, picked a fight with John Henson after the Bucks big man roughed up Aaron Brooks, the smallest guy on Chicago’s team.
But Monday, he had to talk about Jimmy Butler, who cracked a wry smile next to him. This was Butler’s second straight trip to the podium, Chicago’s second straight win over Milwaukee, and the rising star had lifted his team to the finish line, scoring 14 of his 31 points in the fourth quarter to blow open a game that had previously unfolded at a sluggish rate. After Game 1, he’d joked with Derrick Rose about his press conference experience (“awkward,” he said).
Butler has become one of the league’s better-dressed stars east of Oklahoma City (he pulled off a cream-colored shirt buttoned to the top, beneath a plaid jacket) and increasingly, one of its goofiest, openly trolling teammates and reporters on live television. It’s becoming a regular sight. And Chicago, now two games up after a 92-81 win, couldn’t be happier.
“I know Jimmy’s been putting in a lot of work on his game, and it’s paying off at the most important time of the year,” Noah said. "He’s playing great basketball and It’s great to have him as a teammate…"
He paused, briefly, before Butler interrupted. “Thank you.” He shot Noah a sideways glance and a smirk, the room broke out into chuckles and it was clear: Jimmy Butler’s getting used to this. A question followed, “What’s it like when you’re feeling it?”
“I don’t know,” Butler said, “I think I took a lot of bad shots that just happened to go in.” He’d been 0-6 from three before hitting one to tie it at 74. It went from there. “I think it was within the flow of the game. I heat-checked a few times and they just really happened to go in.”
In the sequences that followed, he’d also buried two more threes and annihilated Zaza Pachulia with a two-handed dunk, sending the United Center up.
There was no reluctance from Butler, who’s amassed the confidence in himself and from a veteran team to take over games, leading Chicago in scoring both nights of the series (he had 25 in Game 1) and respect from opposing defenses. Bucks coach Jason Kidd called him a “one-man show.” Khris Middleton, a rising star in his own right (he led Milwaukee with 22) explained the Bucks’ failure to close as simply as this, “Jimmy got hot and got them going.”
“You take the shots the defense gives you,” Butler said. “I just gotta keep shooting, they’ll eventually fall. I shoot enough before and after practice to know they’re going in. They’re rhythm shots for me.”
Butler found his zone, but things were grimier at halftime, when the free-flowing nature of Game 1 felt like a daydream. The Bucks had straightened out their East-leading defense, doubling Pau Gasol on every touch, helping aggressively, and forcing difficult passes and ball rotation with their length. Though both teams missed plenty of open looks (a combined 36 percent in the first half), Milwaukee adjusted, swarmed and disrupted Chicago’s attack. “That’s the game we wanted,” Kidd said. “It wasn’t pretty. That was our pace, it was slow, it was ugly and gave us confidence.”
Kidd’s game plan bottled up Derrick Rose in impressive fashion, trapping off every ball screen and altering the Bulls’ point of attack. Milwaukee forced 11 turnovers and scored 11 points off them. Still, Chicago clawed its way back to a 39-38 lead at halftime behind eight straight points from rookie Nikola Mirotic.
[daily_cut.nba] Oddly, Milwaukee eased up on the ball pressure that worked so well in the second half. The Bucks stuck around behind a balanced attack, but shot just 5-of-23 in the fourth quarter and simply couldn’t hang with Butler and the Bulls. Though the favorites shot just 38 percent on the night the nature of their attack has shaped up, helping on 26-of-31 made baskets after 30 of 38 in Game 1.
“We’re playing basketball the right way, and that will get guys their shots,” Butler said. “Any night, someone can score 30 points or get 20 rebounds. I feel like we’re so deep and we have so many guys that do so many things well. When they’re doubling, you kick the ball out and guys are going to knock down shots.”
The endpoint of the series looks clearer by the day, as the Bulls have imposed their will effectively through two games. But the Bucks pushed back Monday in a literal sense. Seven technical fouls were assessed, Henson shoving Brooks to the ground and sparking a midcourt scuffle and Pachulia ejected after scuffling with Mirotic late in the game. The latter provided yet another medical caveat for Chicago, as the two battled for a loose ball and got tied up on the ground. A minute or so earlier, a wayward elbow from the Bucks center connected with the rookie’s head. Mirotic, whom Chicago will need as the games get bigger, will be re-evaluated Tuesday after being diagnosed with a left quad strain and sporting a swollen left knee after the game.
Neither team took it too personally, but that could change Thursday as the Bucks defend their turf. “It’ll probably get even more physical,” Noah said. “We have to be ready for that.” The Bulls certainly won that battle, outrebounding the opposition 64-48 and scoring 11 second chance points. “That’s the way they play, so it’s the way we have to play,” Middleton said. “We have to play intense and put up a fight.”
So north we go, where the Bucks will make a stand, and potentially a statement about the future if they can win a game or two against a Chicago team looking more and more serious with each game. Milwaukee is a two-hour drive for Bulls fans and a place Butler’s familiar with after his college days at Marquette. The spotlight will certainly follow him, and as Monday showed, he’s more than comfortable.
“Jo thinks Milwaukee’s my favorite city,” Butler deadpanned at the podium when asked his opinion. “I disagree with him, but I like it there. They got a lot of love for me there.” With a straight face, he turned to Noah. “Right Jo?”
“Yes.” Noah tried not to crack. He failed. “I’ve never met someone so excited for a shootaround,” he said, grinning. “Jimmy Butler. In Milwaukee.”
As Butler embraces the moment, he won’t be the only one.