Jimmy Butler might have forgotten he was wearing a microphone for TNT. Maybe just didn't care. Midway through the third quarter in an otherwise ugly, brick-infested Game 2 between the Bulls and Bucks, Butler trotted over to coach Tom Thibodeau and offered a rare insight into the mind of an athlete who felt like he couldn't be stopped.
"He can't guard me, man," Butler said of a Milwaukee defender. "He's too little."
It was the type of pronounced confidence Chicago's fourth year shooting guard would have been unlikely to show even earlier this season. This was the same player who, after scoring a career-high 35 on the Knicks in December, told reporters: "I don't want to be a star. I just want to be a decent role player on a really good team."
Four months later, there was Butler almost single-handedly willing Chicago to a 91-82 victory to go up 2-0 in the first round of the playoffs.
Butler wanted the ball, and so the Bulls gave it to him. He scored 14 of his game-high 31 points in the fourth quarter on the type of plays someone with less faith in their ability might have shied away from.
The game turned with just over seven minutes remaining and the Bulls nursing a six-point lead. That's when Butler took Khris Middleton off the dribble and finished above the rim for an and-one dunk. A minute later, Butler sprinted to the corner and buried a three-pointer off a feed from Derrick Rose. A few minutes after that, he waved off the rest of his team, squared up Giannis Antetokounmpo and ripped a dagger three-pointer over his impossibly long arms.
The truth is that Butler's confidence didn't just appear out of thin air. This type of breakout playoff performance had been brewing all season.
Butler set the tone for his career year before the regular season ever started. He was up for an early extension and the Bulls offered a contract that would have payed him over $10 million annually. It seemed like a nice deal for a perimeter player who had just finished a season shooting under 40 percent from field and under 30 percent from three. Still, Jimmy Butler turned it down.
Refusing that type of money would be hard for anyone, but it must have been especially difficult for someone from Butler's background. As a 13-year-old, he was abandoned by his mother in Tomball, Texas, before a friend's parents took him in. Out of high school, he wasn't good enough to draw a Division 1 scholarship so he headed to junior college. When he was finished at Marquette, the highest honor he earned was an honorable mention on the All-Big East team before becoming the last pick in the first round of the draft.
From the moment Butler decided to turn down the money, his season was defined by this very public, extremely expensive bet he placed on himself. If he suffered a serious injury, he might never have seen half of that money. If he continued to struggle shooting, he may have received a lesser offer as a restricted free agent.
Instead, Butler turned himself into an All-Star. He set career-highs across the board, most notably as a scorer. Butler went from averaging 13.1 points per game to averaging 20, raising his shooting percentage almost seven points from the field and nearly 10 points from deep.
Bulls vs. Bucks
Bulls vs. Bucks
All the while, Butler continued to be the lockdown defender that made him second team All-Defense a year ago. He also fought through a variety of injuries and still led the league in minutes per game. No one else was particularly close.
Thibodeau has said Butler's sudden star turn has surprised even him, a man who watched every game and practice of his professional career. It had to surprise the front office too, or it would have upped its offer by a few million to avoid giving him the max contract he's now in line for this offseason.
For as quick and unexpected as Butler's ascension has been, his arrival as an All-Star couldn't have come at a better time for Chicago. He was drafted weeks after the Bulls fell in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals to the Miami Heat in five tough games. Back then, the story was that Derrick Rose needed somebody, anybody who could take pressure off the youngest MVP in league history and help provide supplemental scoring punch.
Those Bulls -- the first team coached by Thibodeau -- had an obvious fatal flaw. When LeBron James blanketed Rose in crunch-time, no one else on Chicago could create his own offense. The starting shooting guard in those days was Keith Bogans, a player whose success was often measured by whether he could score at least six points. It doesn't sound like a lot, but when Bogans reached that pitiful plateau, the Bulls almost never lost.
These Bulls are an entirely different animal, for better and for worse. Rose isn't the same player consistently enough even if he's capable of playing like it in spurts. Joakim Noah simply isn't as mobile as he was back then. The defense of Omer Asik has been exchanged for the offense of Pau Gasol. The shooting of Kyle Korver was traded in for nothing more than an exception the team never planned to use.
The biggest difference, however, might be the evolution of Butler. Chicago didn't just find a supplemental scorer next Rose, it found a tank of a shooting guard who gets to the foul line at will, bulldozes smaller guards on post-ups and cuts and has become a reliable shooter all while being one of the league's top perimeter defenders.
In other words, Butler has blossomed into the piece Thibodeau's Bulls were always missing. At this point, the only question is if his teammates can match his shockingly high level of play every night, not the other way around.