CHICAGO — For the second time in these playoffs–or maybe third—depending on your view of Russell Westbrook—the best player in a series was sent packing. First the bell tolled for Giannis Antetokounmpo, who snagged rebounds, obliterated shots, and bullied Raptors but couldn’t quite get his arms around a must-win Game 6. Then it came time for Jimmy Butler, the star wing overqualified for the Bulls’ mediocre standing. This marks the second straight year in which Chicago surrounded its best player with curious fits and outmatched contributors. Whether it will be the last, one way or another, is a question that hangs thick in the air at the United Center.
Having elements that work is not the same as having a roster that makes sense. Chicago felt this most sharply after losing Rajon Rondo to injury in the middle of this series, an absence that brought the weakest part of the rotation to bear. Butler can do a lot but can’t literally do it all. And while Chicago has a few trustworthy ball-handlers and a few passable floor spacers, not one of Butler’s teammates is both. Perhaps a contemporary offense could get away with that if its other wing were an all-world, don’t-leave-under-any-circumstances shooter. Maybe the spacing could pass if the bigs on the roster were dynamic position benders. That none of these things were true forced Butler to play uphill all season and sealed Chicago’s elimination.
“Whatever upstairs feels we need or we don’t need, that’s up to them,” Butler said. “I think as a player, myself, and everybody else back in that locker room—we’ve just gotta go out there and play. The guys that they put together, we’ve gotta do the best we can to win games and represent for this organization.”
A team built this way can completely negate the value of Butler hunting down a mismatch against the 5'9" Isaiah Thomas. It can hollow out a series in which Butler averaged 22.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 1.7 steals per game. There are convoluted reasons why this Bulls roster came to look the way it did, but at some point Butler deserves the kind of infrastructure that would actually support its play. A franchise with a single player this good could go on indefinitely by groping their way through awkward lineups to spit out 40ish wins. Or it could look across the floor to see a single star in Thomas, surrounded by complementary personnel and a system that brings out his best.
Butler spent the final moments of his season limping and resigned. A knee injury had slowed Butler over the final two games, nagging at the Bulls’ only real chance at extending the series.
“He got treatment yesterday and all day today to put himself in a position to go out there and fight for his teammates,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He even went back in the back to get worked on after we subbed him out that first time. But I’m telling you: Jimmy’s a warrior. He battled, he fought all the way through, even though he wasn’t 100 percent.”
By the fourth quarter, there was nothing left for Butler to play for, given that Boston’s perimeter shooting had finally normalized. Eight different Celtics would hit a three in this game, totaling 16 makes on 39 attempts. “We’ve got more coming based on how we shot before that,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. The better half of Chicago’s execution unraveled completely. The continued exposure of the playoffs had made the Bulls’ limitations too obvious, from Robin Lopez’s trouble defending in space (despite a terrific series otherwise) to the spacey judgment of Chicago’s reserve guards to Dwyane Wade’s disinterest in giving chase on a long defensive possession. All series long the Celtics created clean looks from the perimeter for quality shooters. That alone couldn’t guarantee them a win—in the playoffs, good probability is never quite enough—though it did slightly overstate Boston’s struggles at the start of the series.
The 2-0 lead Chicago took to start the series is concrete. What’s more elusive is the exact reason why, particularly when Rondo’s presence in this series was so brief and the cloud of Thomas’ personal struggle put the Celtics in an impossible position. “Bigger things than basketball happened,” Stevens said. Once Boston course corrected, Butler’s isolation felt palpable. Every basket required fighting his way through some of the most persistent perimeter defenders in the league. When it wasn’t Avery Bradley draped all over him, it was Marcus Smart. When it wasn’t Marcus Smart, it was Jae Crowder. There are fewer easy baskets to be had in the playoffs. Butler, given his predicament, couldn’t find any at all.
This is now a familiar grind. As soon as the Bulls were Butler’s, they were misshapen. By the time they’re fully reformed, the burden of carrying them may fall to someone else.