Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best performances in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along.
King of the Court: Jimmy Butler
Less than a week after Jimmy Butler’s game-winning performance against the Brooklyn Nets last Wednesday, he’s come back to reclaim the throne with the best individual performance of his career: 52 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals, and a block in Monday’s 118–111 Bulls win over the Charlotte Hornets. (Those 52 points didn’t add up to a career high, but if we’re being real, this was the most impressive scoring run of his life; the 53 points he scored last season came against the Sixers, and it necessitated an overtime period and 49 minutes of his time.) Butler now has three games with at least 40 points this season, already matching his total from all of last season.
Butler served up a helping of comfort food, of his greatest hits. He is no long-range bombardier (only four of his 24 field goal attempts came from 3). He is more like DeMar DeRozan in chain mail. Only Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and DeMarcus Cousins average more free throw attempts per game, and only seven players in the league average more midrange attempts. Butler repeatedly trucked his way into the lane and was rewarded with a season-high 22 free throw attempts, of which he made 21. He drove right, stepped back, and popped from inside the arc all game long, and why not? There was nothing Nicolas Batum or any of the other Hornets perimeter defenders could do to bother Butler’s rhythm from the midrange; he miraculously drilled six of his eight attempts from the fabled isolationist zone that MJ built. On Butler’s final field goal of the night, an entrancing 22-footer to ice the game with 32 seconds left, there were no words left to describe his flow state. To wit: Bulls announcer Stacey King’s call of the play devolved into repeated, exultant screams of “SRIRACHA!”
Who could have predicted this trajectory for Butler’s NBA career? From 30th pick in the 2011 draft to break-in-case-of-emergency defensive wing to defensive ace with shooting issues to one of the best all-around players in the league, all in the span of five-plus years — it’s hard to imagine even Butler being able to map out this specific path to stardom. But when I talked to Butler back in June about when it began to click for him, he was able to pinpoint the exact moment.
February 2, 2012, at Madison Square Garden, with just over a minute remaining in a close game against the Knicks. Injuries forced then-coach Tom Thibodeau to put Butler out on the floor in a pressure situation. The move reassured him.
“I got my chance to play. At MSG. Guarding Carmelo,” Butler told me. “I was playing some really good defense, but all I remember from that night was we called a timeout, and Derrick [Rose] was like, ‘Jimmy, when you’re open you have to shoot the ball.’ And Thibs was like, ‘Yeah, Jimmy. Shoot the ball when you’re open.’ And I was like, ‘What?! You just told me to shoot?’ The next play down, they double-teamed Derrick, and he threw me the ball. I dribbled to the right and rose up and hit a midrange jump shot. It was in the fourth quarter; it was a pretty big basket. I said, ‘Whoa, there we go.’”
That night, a 22-year-old Butler crossed the 20-minute threshold for the first time in his career — a feat hilarious in hindsight considering the thousands of grueling minutes he’s logged in the five years since. It was the shot that assured his sense of place in the league. Driving right, rising up, and hitting — the formula for Butler’s success hasn’t changed from that game against the Knicks to Monday night’s against the Hornets, but the magnitude of his accomplishments has.
So the “Three Alphas” in Chicago turned out to be a mirage. It faded about as quickly as Dwyane Wade began sitting out games for routine maintenance, and about as dependably as Rajon Rondo finding a way to ostracize himself from yet another NBA franchise. This is, was, and will be Jimmy Butler’s team. For those who saw through the smoke and mirrors from the start, let Monday night serve as a victory lap; for those who were slow to see just how good Butler has become, may we repent.
Runner-up: Giannis Antetokounmpo
This is how long Giannis’s reach extends: In what felt like one fell swoop, not only did he devour one of Russell Westbrook’s blistering drives, his 26-point, 10-rebound, and five-assist performance in a 98–94 win over the Thunder dropped OKC from tied for fourth place in the West at the start of Monday to seventh by the end of the night. But wins and losses seem almost immaterial when we get a dumbfounding moment like this in the fourth quarter:
There is so much to love about this play, but here is where we start: Giannis has become so adept at his Eurostep! Antetokounmpo moving both left and right (and up) had Domantas Sabonis in knots, and that complete jumble between mind and body had the rookie caught in what I’ll call the Struggle Jumpman:
All of Antetokounmpo’s contortions meant poor Sabonis catches this poster from both his front and side profile. Thus, we can infer that the final stage of this obvious crime against physics is for Giannis to wrap himself, like a boa constrictor, around a defender’s entire body as he dunks on his defender’s suffocating soul. I’m guessing it’ll happen in the next week or two, so keep checking this space!