Jimmy Butler scores 38 points in return to United Center, but Bulls end skid

Former Bulls star Jimmy Butler knows exactly how it works.

For the national broadcast team, the ESPN writer, he just give them a generic soundbite to run with earlier this week.

The “It’s just another game’’ or the simple “I’ll always remember my time here in Chicago.’’

That usually pacifies the media beast for the time being.

Those close to Butler, however?

Friday was far from “just another game.’’

Back in early January, Butler admitted to the Sun-Times that he had Feb. 9 circled in his calendar. His teammates and coaching staff knew otherwise.

“He had it circled right when the schedule came out,’’ Taj Gibson said with a laugh last month.
Yes, Friday at the United Center was a homecoming for both Gibson and Butler. Not exactly a good one, considering the Bulls beat Minnesota 114-113 thanks to Zach LaVine’s 35 points and ended a seven-game skid.

But for Butler it was definitely more personal.

The Bulls were the organization he had every intention of staying with. This was the place he wanted to try and build a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference. He made his intentions very clear to the front office, and in his estimation, they nodded their head in agreement and then lied to him.

Butler was traded to Minnesota on draft night, as the Bulls opted for the rebuild. That meant getting back LaVine, Kris Dunn, and a swapping of draft picks, which brought back Lauri Markkanen.

Initially angry with what he felt was deception by general manager Gar Forman, Butler was not shy about expressing that.

Neither was his camp, evident by his long-time trainer Travelle Gaines tweeting out hours after the trade, “0-82. Worst culture in the league. I met drug dealers with better morals then their GM. He is a liar and everyone knows.’’

So while Butler said after the game that he didn’t feel time really healed everything, he appreciated the reception he received, especially VP of basketball John Paxson coming into the locker room after the game and touching base with both him and Gibson.

“I don’t think time really heals it,’’ Butler said. “You’ve just got to realize that it’s a business. Not a lot of guys stay in one place forever.

“Everybody knows I’ve got a lot of love for this organization, this city, this fan base. That’s the kind of guy Pax is though. Come on in, say what’s up, check in on me.’’

Not that Butler needed to see everyone. Forman didn’t seem to be in attendance, and that was fine with the former Bull.

“I don’t need to speak to everybody,’’ Butler said. “I’m completely fine, I’m content with who I am. I walk out with no pats on the ass.’’

As far as Butler was concerned, making sure his current team can stop blowing late-game leads was way more important. However, even with the loss to the Bulls, Butler’s new team was 34-24.

“He’s changed everything,’’ Tom Thibodeau said, when asked what Butler has meant to his new organization. “I was away from him for two years, but just seeing the growth in him in terms of leadership. I watched a lot of his games, so I knew what he was doing on the floor, but just to see the way he was with the players. How he practices, how he prepares, all that stuff. In many ways it reminds me of the way Luol [Deng] was with him.’’

Meanwhile, the Bulls have made sure to only say good things about Butler, including a touching tribute video played in the first quarter to honor the first returns of both Gibson and Butler.

Both players acknowledged the crowd and seemed emotional.

Short-lived, as Butler finished with 38 points, but missed the game-winner at the horn.

Paxson didn’t expect any less of an effort from Butler.

“The one thing we learned from Jimmy while he’s here, he’s motivated by a lot of things but he’s motivated by that chip on his shoulder,’’ Paxson said. “He’s survived, thrived his whole life by doing that. We have great respect for Jimmy.

“I told you when we moved him, one of the great people in this business, great professionals, was a wonderful representative of this organization. We don’t forget those things.’’

Unfortunately for the Bulls, neither does Butler.

Forgive? Maybe. Forget? Definitely not on Friday.