By Mike McGraw
Tom Thibodeau has repeated these lines roughly 18,000 times since becoming head coach of the Bulls, whenever the topic is injured or missing players.
"Everyone in that locker room is capable."
"We have more than enough to win with."
"If you're in this league, you're a great player."
Stale as they may be, those lines have held true since Luol Deng aggravated a hamstring injury late in the third quarter Friday at Boston.
Second-year forward Jimmy Butler stepped in and immediately delivered some tough baskets in late-game situations. That's not only a slight surprise for a guy who is supposed to be a defensive specialist, it's also one of the toughest assignments in the NBA.
"I feel like that's what Lu does for this team. So when he's out, I've got to try to fill his shoes," Butler said after Saturday's 85-82 overtime loss to Memphis. "Really big shoes to fill on your own, but all I can do is try the best I can."
In the Boston game, Butler scored 6 straight points in overtime of an eventual victory.
His first NBA start Saturday at the United Center didn't result in a great start. But he scored 14 of his game-high 18 points in the fourth quarter and overtime as the Bulls rallied from a 17-point deficit.
"Everybody on this team is capable of being a starter," teammate Taj Gibson said, echoing his coach. "Everybody on the team believes in each other."
At the end of the third quarter, Butler was 1-for-9 from the field and was being outscored 14-4 by Grizzlies counterpart Rudy Gay. Butler credited teammates Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer for helping set him straight and said Deng provided some pointers during halftime.
"It was nerve-wracking a first," Butler said. "I was frustrated. I was rushing things. Jo and Booz and Nate (Robinson) and everybody just saying, 'Man, calm down. Play like you're coming off the bench and play hard.'
"I feel like (Gay) started to whup my (butt) at one point. I had to man up and be like, 'We've got to stop him if we want a chance of winning this game. We've got to get some stops.'
"Whenever I said that to myself, Jo said that to me, Booz said that to me -- it was different matchup for me."
By the time the game was over, Butler outscored Gay 18-16 and shot a slightly better percentage from the field.
Butler's conditioning was impressive. Not only did he play nearly 48 minutes Saturday, in overtime he sprinted the length of the court to convert a fastbreak lay-in off a long pass from Boozer.
Then after Robinson lost the ball in the final minute of overtime with the Bulls down by 3, Butler chased down Gay from behind and got a steal that at least gave the Bulls a chance for a tying 3-pointer.
"I feel like that's my job to hustle and play hard," he said. "Tired, fresh legs -- do whatever it takes to help this team win."
Butler admitted feeling tired when the game was over but wished he were more tired. Since the Bulls ultimately lost in overtime, he felt he could have done more.
As luck would have it, Butler's family was in town from Tomball, Texas, so they got to witness his first professional start first hand. On Monday, they probably will see him take a long turn guarding Kobe Bryant when the Los Angeles Lakers visit the UC.
Chicago traditionally loves hustling players, so it made sense when Butler received a loud ovation during pregame introductions.
"It was great. It brought me back to my college days (at Marquette), to tell you the truth," Butler said. "I love this city, man, and I feel like if we just keep playing hard, everything will turn around."
Asked if he hears many compliments from Bulls fans around town, he passed on the question. "I'm not around town that much," he said. "I like to be in the house."