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The defense rests: Bulls need Butler back ASAP

Chicago Bulls Jimmy Butler (21) advances during the first quarter at the United Center in Chicago, Ill., on Saturday, April 27, 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

By Joe Cowley

Staff Reporter

There’s very little that Jimmy Butler hasn’t done for the Bulls the last two seasons.

Now it’s time to see if the All-Star has it in him to play savior.

That’s a role that is still absent from his resume.

And while good friend/actor Mark Wahlberg would have no problem casting Butler for that part, well, let’s just say it might not be as easy a sell job for some of Butler’s teammates.

His season has been an interesting one.

The fifth-year player has gone from the building block of the future with a five-year, free-agent deal he inked last summer, to a player that promoted himself into leader in what resembled a hostile takeover. And even with some rolling of the eyes by several veterans, as well as members of the Derrick Rose camp less than thrilled with Butler’s ascension, the reality of the situation is the Bulls need Butler more than ever over the final 22 games.

Like it or not.

Since Butler’s left knee went from sore to strain back on Feb. 5, the Bulls have gone 3-8 with Butler in street clothes, not only falling to a .500 record on the season, but slipping out of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference.

Basically, very unfamiliar territory.

“This is the first time I’ve gone through this,’’ Rose said after the loss to Orlando on Wednesday night.

If Butler truly is the star player he believes he is then he’ll make sure Rose and Co. won’t be going through this much longer.

His 22.4 points per game will obviously be a welcome addition, but it’s Butler’s defense that is a must at this point. Opposing teams have basically been running lay-up lines on the Bulls defense.

Butler is not only one of the premiere defenders on the roster, but in the league. Time for that to be tested.

“Teams come in and see us struggling, they know we’re struggling, and they see opportunity,’’ Gasol said of the current state of the Bulls. “They’re smelling blood and they’re going for it. It doesn’t make things any easier, but at the same time we’ve got to step it up.’’

Someone has to.

While there was resistance to Butler’s voice as a leader at the start of the year, in his absence the only vocal push directed at this locker room has come from the coaching staff. According to Gasol, no player-only meetings, no tirades from anyone over the last month.

Just a quiet group that seems way too comfortable with its fate as a lottery team.

“I think the coaching staff is trying to send those messages as we try and acknowledge them and understand them,’’ Gasol said, “but at the same time you’ve got to bring it on the floor and make it happen.’’

No one is better equipped for that than Butler.

According to coach Fred Hoiberg, the plan was to have Butler in the team’s full practice on Friday, see how he feels after, and possibly play him against Houston Saturday night at the United Center.

Bigger picture?

If Butler’s return can truly save this sinking ship, well then all the tough talk from the guard this season will have been backed up by action. The takeover will be complete.

If it’s business as usual for this lifeless team and they fall short of the playoffs with Butler? There should be a long line of players looking in the mirror, and Butler leading it.

Leadership comes with a price, and one way or the other Butler is about to find out that cost.

Email: jcowley@suntimes.com

Twitter: @suntimes_hoops