BOSTON — Twenty-five minutes after the final buzzer sounded on the Chicago Bulls’ 108-97 Game 5 loss to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday, the hits kept coming for Jimmy Butler inside a depressed visitors locker room at TD Garden.
“Hey, Jimmy, ain’t no hot water, bro,” Bulls guard Dwyane Wade yelled as he made his way to his locker.
“Word?” asked Butler, still dressed in full uniform, with a stim machine attached to his knee sending energy jolts through his tired body.
“It’s freezing in there,” Wade said.
Wade was referencing the cold water streaming through the Bulls’ showers, but his words could have explained the team’s performance in the final 12 minutes of a winnable, series-altering game. After playing the Celtics so tough in front of a raucous crowd for three quarters, the Bulls unraveled both emotionally and physically in the waning moments as the Celtics outscored them 29-16 in the final stanza.
Butler, who has carried the Bulls so many times throughout a dominant individual season, managed just two shots in the final 12 minutes and missed both of them. After it was over, he explained that his passiveness was due, at least in part, to the fact that he was taking a backseat to Wade.
“I liked getting everybody involved,” Butler said. “If somebody else got it going, then we got to feed him — him being Dwyane Wade. But I just feel like you got to let the game come to you. Wherever you are on the floor, when it’s your opportunity, you got to take that. I’m cool with everybody, myself included. We got to be better on Friday.”
For as much determination as the Bulls showed throughout much of Wednesday’s game, Butler is the one who must be better than everyone else on Friday if the Bulls are to bring the series back to Boston for Game 7 on Sunday. Butler has set such a high bar for himself this season that it’s rare to see him go just 6-for-15 from the field, as he did Wednesday. He’s usually the player who can will the rest of his teammates to a higher level.
On Wednesday, he was the player the Celtics were determined to slow down. Celtics swingman Avery Bradley hounded him all over the floor.
“We run a lot to Jimmy, so it’s not about the shot selection,” Wade said of Butler’s struggles. “Obviously, if he didn’t shoot, it’s because he didn’t want to shoot. We put the ball in his hands a lot. I’m sure he’ll see a few things [on tape], we’ll see a few things. But at the same time, they’re keying on him. He made the right plays, and guys got open shots. That’s all you can do, so he did what he was supposed to do.”
But as the former go-to guy with the Miami Heat for years, Wade also understands that there are times in games, especially playoff games, when players must demand the ball and take over. Butler has shown that ability throughout the season, and he did so throughout Game 4, in which he went to the line 23 times and scored 33 points. He repeatedly said his knee was fine, and he refused to use the wear and tear of the season as an excuse, but he was not his usual, aggressive self late in Game 5 — and his teammates and coaches knew it.
“Wade had it going,” Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg said. “And we went to Dwyane a lot of times with that small-small ball screen. We had Jimmy on the other side. They trapped it. We got the ball out of it. But I thought our guys for the most part made the right plays. Jimmy, he’s a guy that’s carried us a lot in fourth quarters. We need to do a better job of getting him the ball.”
Wade echoed similar sentiments, saying the Bulls had “to do a better job of putting him in different places on the basketball floor” while discussing the nagging pain Butler must be dealing with in his legs. It’s up to Hoiberg and his staff to find those hot spots on the floor to get their star rolling again before Friday.
But more than anything else, it’s up to Butler to impose his will on his opponent, the way he has so many times this season. If Butler wants to take another step in his superstar progression, he will find a way to do so again, even though his body isn’t feeling its best.
“Win at all costs,” Butler said of his mentality heading into Friday. “Win. Because if you don’t, then you got to go home. That should be motivation in itself. Motivation enough to know that if we don’t win this, we ain’t playing no more this season.”