With 3:43 left to go in the fourth quarter and the Chicago Bulls up 86-80 on the visiting Milwaukee Bucks, Jimmy Butler pulled up for a three-pointer from 25-feet away.
In the eight minutes before, Butler had scored 11 points and was almost single-handedly holding the Bulls’ lead over the Bucks throughout the final quarter of the game.
And while the Bulls had the lead, it wasn’t a safe one. The Bucks had been doing to the Bulls what they’d been doing all season: Forcing turnovers. They even snagged a small and short lead at the beginning of the fourth.
So when Butler got the ball on the left wing three-point line and his team up by six, it was a crucial possession.
And what did the Marquette grad do with it? He did what he’d been doing the whole game: He let it fly.
Taking a dribble with his left hand, Butler hesitated, causing his defender, Giannis Antetokounmpo, to freeze. That’s all Butler needed. Without hesitation, he clutched the ball with both hands and rose through the air draining the three-pointer in the face of Antetokounmpo and his 7’3″ wingspan.
Of course he made it, how could he not?
The quarter, nay, the game, had been going so well for him up to this point (he had 28 points and 8 rebounds up until then) that it would’ve been more surprising if he missed. In fact, it took him everything in his power not to pull out the “Jordan Shrug” on the United Center crowd.
Butler didn’t score any for the remainder of the game. He didn’t have to. The Bulls never lost that nine point lead and they were able to finish the game with relative ease to put themselves up 2-0 over Milwaukee as the series headed up I-94.
It’s been about 275 words now and not once has Derrick Rose’s name been mentioned.
It’s kind of refreshing, isn’t it?
I’m going to try and refrain from mentioning him for a little while longer because there’s much more to talk about.
Pau Gasol keeps getting double-doubles and added 11 points and 16 rebounds to the game. Mike Dunleavy Jr. had 12 points and Joakim Noah had 19 rebounds.
It was a full team effort that won this game. Yes, Butler was the head guy and was probably the reason the Bulls were able to chalk-up a W for this one, but his teammates made their impacts, which is why we now bring up Rose.
The Bulls’ superstar had a modest 15 points and a game-high 9 assists.
It was by no means an off-game for the Chicago native, but it wasn’t a big one for him, either.
It’s odd, then, that we’re talking about a playoff win when Derrick Rose had an average night. You sure wouldn’t have seen that four years ago. Back then, if Rose didn’t score upwards of 20 points in the playoffs, this team was done.
So what’s changed? In one word: Everything.
Rose’s teammates have not only changed around him but they’re also much better in talent than what he had in the past. Now the Bulls have a reliable offensive big man in Gasol (2015 postseason: 10.5 ppg and 14.5 rpg) and offensive little man in Aaron Brooks. They have a weapon who can spread the floor and make threes in Nikola Mirotic (may the basketball gods allow him to heal quickly) and they even have their dark knight in Dunleavy who has been nothing but solid this whole year (when he’s healthy).
And of course, there’s Butler. It’s his first year as an All-Star and his first year where he’ll most likely win the Most Improved Player of the Year award. He’s slowly turning into that Luol Deng type of player who is glue of the team. In the playoffs alone this year, he’s averaging 28 points a game and 4.3 rebounds. Yes, it’s been two games but it’s a peek behind the curtain at what potentially can be the main act of Butler’s playoff career.
No longer is all the pressure on Rose, which is a good thing because I don’t think his fragile knees could handle it all.
This is a team that can score points with or without him.
That’s not to say the Bulls’ championship hopes would be gone if Rose wasn’t on this team. They would be. But just as it takes a village, it takes a full team to make it to The Finals and the Bulls seem to have that full team.
This year’s team is more complete than past ones. Gasol has the experience and the resume to be a leader both on and off the court, and Noah brings the energy and rebounding every night. In fact, Gasol and Noah combined to grab 38 boards in Game Two against the Buck. And with points coming from more sources than just Rose, this is a more prepared team going forward than Bulls fans have seen in quite some time.
Plus, the players that come off the bench are just as, if not more, talented than what the Bulls had in 2010-2011; they averaged about 49 points per game in the regular season.
As the Bulls head to Milwaukee with a comfortable series lead, their comfort comes in knowing that the man with the shaky knees isn’t the one they’ll always have to rely on to win playoff games.
Now, more than anytime before in Tom Thibodeau’s tenure, the Bulls may truly have more than enough to win.