Jimmy Butler entered the series with only 27 starts and 10 career playoff appearances on his resume.
Yet over the course of Game 1, it was hard to tell which one had long ago been tabbed for greatness and which had yet to see his stock purchased by the common basketball fan.
The "Chosen One" struggled to find any space against Chicago's unheralded star. James managed just two points in the first half on 1-of-6 shooting from the field. Butler's Bulls—missing 60 percent of their starting lineup in Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich—entered intermission deadlocked at 37 with the reigning champs.
While James eventually found his touch—he finished with 24 points on 8-of-17 shooting—but it was too little, too late. Butler, who played every second of those 48 minutes, powered his team to a 93-86 upset win. He scored 11 of his 21 points in the decisive fourth quarter that saw Chicago turn a four-point deficit into a seven-point victory.
For some members of the basketball world, that night served as their official introduction to Butler. Even those who had witnessed his rise from potential rotation piece to a key contributor during the season were forced to remove his ceiling.
But he failed to impress one person inside of Chicago's locker room: himself. While he knows he's come a long way from his days in Tomball, Texas, he's still worlds away from achieving true satisfaction with his game.
A Sin City Start
Butler capped his collegiate career—which started with a season at Tyler (Texas) Junior College and ended after three more years at Marquette—with 15.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.4 steals as a senior. Chicago snatched up the two-time All Big East Honorable Mention performer with the 30th overall pick of the 2011 draft.
The thought of joining an organization with a past as storied and a future as bright as Chicago's took some time to settle in:
Knowing the history there, Scottie, Dennis Rodman, Mike, that's what I knew growing up when it came to basketball. And then you look at nowadays, Joakim (Noah), (Carlos Boozer), Derrick (Rose), Luol (Deng), all of those guys (were) who I was watching when I was in college.
Finding a way into coach Tom Thibodeau's rotation took even longer. Joining a team fresh off a 62-win season and an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, Butler endured a predictable minutes crunch at the beginning of his rookie season.
He played just 42 games that year and saw single-digit minutes in all but 13 of them. He never got off the sideline in three of Chicago's six postseason games that year and played a total of four minutes when he did.
But if the Bulls were planning to keep bringing Butler along slowly, he was ready to test their patience.
"I worked hard all summer, worked on my jump shot, getting to the cup (and) to the line. And it showed."
After missing out on Summer League play the prior season due to the NBA lockout, he made the most of this critical development stage.
He surged out of the gate with 25 points and seven rebounds in his Sin City debut last summer. He followed that up with a 24-point, seven-rebound effort the next day, then capped his four-game run through the desert with 23 points, five rebounds and three assists.
Fans and analysts tend to downplay the importance of these games, but for Butler, it was an invaluable experience.
"More than anything, it was gaining confidence," he says. "You just got to get the feel for the NBA game. I feel like I didn't get that a lot in my rookie year."
Confidence is Key
Chicago's crowded perimeter group grew noticeably thinner over the 2012 offseason. Kyle Korver was traded to the Atlanta Hawks, and C.J. Watson, John Lucas and Ronnie Brewer left via free agency.
The Bulls added veterans Hinrich, Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli to help fill that void, but Butler's chances at more floor time had improved. The dominance he'd displayed on the summer circuit helped him add a needed trait to maximize those minutes.
"Just knowing that I belonged here and knowing that I put that work in every day," he says. "I don't have to be nervous whenever I hit the basketball court."
While he had his nerves under control, the emotional roller coaster that is an 82-game season has presented its own set of problems. On nights when he struggles with his shot, he's sometimes left searching for ways to stay positive.
"I still think sometimes I get down on myself. I worry too much," he says. "But I feel like it's just the type of person I am. I want to play well every night."
But even the game's all-time greats can't avoid some rough patches.
That's a lesson he learned from the people he sees as being most responsible for his rise through the NBA ranks—his teammate:
Lu told me, 'You're going to have good games, don't get too high on yourself. You're going to have bad games, don't get too low on yourself.'...That's huge because there's games when I come out and I score 20-plus points (and) there's games when I come out and I play terrible. But I think of what Lu says and it's just like, 'It's going to be alright. You got a next game.'
Deflecting credit to his teammates isn't a public relations ploy for Butler. He's not looking to score any brownie points inside a locker room that he admits still gives him goose bumps to be a part of.
While he sometimes rehashes sports cliches—"playing one day at a time," "five players playing as one," etc.—it's impossible to avoid the sense that he's actually speaking from the heart. There's a distinguishable inflection in his speech whenever the topic of conversation shifts away from himself and onto his teammates and coaches.
He hasn't forgotten about the individual hard work that brought him to this level, and he knows that the confidence his teammates have helped instill within himself only exists because he's put in the countless hours needed to take his career as far as it's already come.
Yet the mere presence of those other players alone is enough to keep him striving for something better for this team.
"When you see guys that want to win, that will do anything for their team, do anything for you as your teammate, why can't I be the same way?"
Turning Potential Into Production
Butler's sophomore season started with marked improvement, but it wasn't until January 19 that everything started falling into place. He had played in each of Chicago's first 38 games before that night, averaging 5.4 points on 50.3 percent shooting from the field in just over 17 minutes a game.
The workload was better than it had been the prior year, but Butler still felt like he could give his team a lot more.
"I used to always complain to (coach Thibodeau), 'Thibs, I want to play, I want to play, I want to play," he recalls.
With Deng sidelined with a strained hamstring, the coach was ready to give Butler his opportunity.
"He was like, 'Alright, Jimmy, you ready to play?'" says Butler. "I was like 'Yea, coach, I mean I guess I've been playing. Yea, I'm ready to play, coach."
Butler wasn't given a chance to play, so much as he was tossed into the lion's den. He played over 47 minutes in Chicago's 85-82 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies that night.
While the game didn't finish as he would have liked, it's hard to imagine a scenario where his star could have shined any brighter. His stat sheet was stuffed to the brink with 18 points, eight rebounds, three assists and three steals.
Even more impressive, though, was the way he kept Rudy Gay from doing the same. Memphis' leading scorer managed just 16 points on 6-of-19 shooting as Butler hounded him throughout the contest.
That game—Butler's first career start—taught the Marquette product two valuable lessons.
One was to "be careful what you wish for." The second was that it's not easy being Luol Deng, even for only a night:
Those are big shoes to fill, considering I'm like a (size) 13 and he's a like a 16, 15. But it's even bigger when it's out there on the floor, you know (replacing) an All-Star-caliber player. He's been doing this for nine years...He's a huge leader for this team.
Butler first called the experience "tough," but then corrected himself with a line that makes it obvious why he's become both a fan favorite and an integral piece of Chicago's roster after only two seasons.
"It's different, that's exactly what it is. It's different, because I wasn't used to it. But you learn, you got to grow on the move."
Making Championship Plans
While the Windy City is buzzing with excitement over Rose's long anticipated return, no one may be happier to have him back than Butler.
"I feel like when we're healthy we're really dangerous," he says. "We play hard, night in and night out, and play to win every single night."
Although the pair only played together sparingly during Butler's rookie year, he says that Rose's vocal leadership has been one of the biggest reasons for his success:
Derrick used to always tell me, 'You've been doing this for however long now. Everybody laces up their shoes the same way...(This is) what you love to do, this is your job, so have fun while doing it...When I bought into it, I guess I did OK.
Chicago has been searching for Rose's ideal backcourt complement for years, and if Butler isn't already that player, he's well on his way to becoming it.
His athleticism and instincts make him a constant source for defensive attention away from the ball. The .467/.381/.803 shooting form he flashed last season will help Chicago maintain optimal spacing for Rose to attack off the dribble.
But it's his ability to impact the game with more than just scoring that will help the Bulls add offensive prowess without sacrificing their physical defensive identity.
"A lot of hustle, a lot of effort goes into defense and loose balls and rebounding," he says. "I want to be that guy. Like I always say, I'll do whatever my team needs me to do to help win games."
A Rose-Butler backcourt is scary enough offensively, but it holds nightmarish potential at the opposite end of the floor.
After only two seasons in the league, Butler already speaks like a battle-tested stopper.
"Defense is all about knowing your opponent better than they know you."
He certainly looked like he knew something the rest of us didn't when he held James—a 56.5 percent shooter during the regular season—to sub-44-percent shooting during that five-game battle in May.
If he had any secrets to slowing James, he's not going to share them. When asked what made him so successful in that series, he's predictably quick to deflect any praise for his play:
I wasn't doing anything, it was what we were doing as a team. My teammates were always there, so they always had my back. For us, trying to stop him, trying to stop them, that's definitely a team effort...It was us against LeBron.
If Butler was ever going to ditch his humility, this was his best chance to do it. Few players emerge from a showdown against James to such glowing reviews as Butler did.
But taking credit, no matter how deserved it might be, just isn't part of Butler's personality. It's this mentality, coupled with his on-court production, that may very well lead to Chicago thanking its adopted son for the return of the Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy in the near future.
Just don't expect him to claim his responsibility for that long overdue reunion.
"The city and the team that I play for, the organization and my teammates, I feel like they complement me really well," he said. "They make me a better player (and) a better person."
It's hard to imagine that feeling isn't mutual.
* All quotes obtained first hand, unless otherwise noted.
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