Like the Running of the Bulls in Spain, the namesake basketball team in Chicago started the season off with a bang. The Bulls won their first three games and the trio of Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo showed signs of meshing well together.
But then just like that, the Bulls seemed to fall apart, losing their next three games in a row, including two back-to-back double-digit losses.
Chicago's loss to the Pacers was especially troubling as the Bulls lost by 17 points to a team they beat by 17 points earlier in the season. Calling out his team's effort in the loss, Jimmy Butler questioned the Bulls' competitive spirit, which brought back memories of his general annoyance with coach Fred Hoiberg's lack of intensity the previous season.
But instead of just offering criticisms about his team, Butler has responded by doing the opposite. Butler has put the Bulls on his back and led Chicago to six wins in its last eight games. The Bulls are now 9-5 and near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, in large part because of Butler.
The Bulls All-Star was especially brilliant against the Lakers on Sunday. With Wade resting, Butler carried the scoring load the Bulls by finishing with 40 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Butler was especially aggressive and got to the free-throw line 14 times, where he scored 12 points.
Amazingly, Butler predicted he was going to score 40 points. However, with the season's he's been having so far, it is actually not that surprising.
In Chicago's last eight games Butler has just been on a tear, averaging 28.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 2.5 steals. During this stretch, Butler is shooting 46.9 percent, a respectable 37.0 percent from three and 89.5 percent from the charity stripe. For the season, Butler is averaging a career-high in points (25.1) and rebounds (6.6).
Butler is also being far more aggressive driving the ball and is averaging a career-high 9.2 free throws per game. He has made the second-most free throws in the league and is fourth in attempts. Butler is also shooting a career best 42.6 percent from three, which is a significant increase from last season when he shot 31.2 percent from behind the arc.
"I think to an extent, the game tells you what you're supposed to do." Butler said about his evolving game after a recent win in Portland. "I think year to year, I've been in a different role and now, the role is a little bit bigger than it was last year. So I'm called upon, to do a lot more on both ends of the floor. I think that's what the game tells me to do.That's the way the game goes. But with the group of guys we have, they constantly remind me what I have to be doing out there on the floor."
The Bulls made some flashy additions in the offseason with Wade and Rondo, but Butler, who leads Chicago in minutes, points, three-point percentage, free-throws attempts and steals, remains their No. 1 option. This is something that both Rondo and Wade have acknowledged as well. Yet with the championship-level experience both players bring to the Bulls, Butler is learning how to be even more of an elite player.
"I'm talking to D-Wade before the game and he's just telling me how I have to approach the game," Butler said. "You go out there with a killer instinct every night. Make them adjust to you. Go out with a full head of steam and show them why you are one of the best players on the floor. That's what I try to do every single night. If it's coming from him, there has to be some truth to it."
Besides the motivation aspect, Butler is also benefiting from playing alongside Wade and Rondo. Both Wade and Rondo thrive on drives to the basket, which causes defenses to rotate and results in open perimeter looks for the Bulls. Chicago still remains a mediocre three-point shooting team (12th overall in the league) but Butler is shooting a solid 39.1 percent from three in catch and shoot situations. Butler is also knocking down jumpers in spot up situations. According to Synergy Sports, he's shooting 61.5 percent on 13 attempts with no dribbles. All of this helps the Bulls -- a team with few shooters -- spread the floor and provide the necessary spacing for drives at the basket.
Butler's ability to attack the rim and score remains his bread and butter. He is averaging 7.8 drives to the basket and is converting 81.7 percent of the time. This is part of the Bulls' game plan as Butler is Chicago's go-to option on offense.
"The guys are doing a really good job at getting [Butler] the ball out there, especially when we get into the penalty," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said in Portland. "We get Jimmy the ball up top and give him a little isolation play with movement on the wings and let him go to work. And he's making good solid plays out there. We're riding him, there's no doubt about that and we will continue to do that as long as he stays in this rhythm. Which I'm confident he will do."
As Butler has shown so far this season, Hoiberg's confidence is not unfounded. But while Butler is thriving individually, he is more focused on getting the Bulls back to the playoffs and be among the best teams in the East. And the way Butler is playing, this seems more than doable.
"I just care about winning," Butler said. "That's all I want to do. I want to find us in a great place at the end of the season. Win as many road games as possible and continue to play great basketball. As a team, that's what we want to do. We want to play as perfect as possible."