Jimmy Butler wants to defend Isaiah Thomas: Breaking down matchup between Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls stars

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Jimmy Butler wants to defend Isaiah Thomas: Breaking down matchup between Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls stars

Post by bobheckler on Sat Apr 15, 2017 12:35 pm


Jimmy Butler wants to defend Isaiah Thomas: Breaking down matchup between Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls stars

Updated on April 15, 2017 at 10:48 AM Posted on April 15, 2017 at 10:45 AM

Chicago Bulls' Jimmy Butler (21), center, battles for a ball with Boston Celtics' Jae Crowder, left, and Isaiah Thomas (4) earlier this season. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)


Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler is not an Isaiah Thomas stopper.

That's not a slight against Butler's defense, but we have a full season's worth of evidence Thomas is inevitable. The Boston Celtics guard is one of the NBA's best offensive players, a light switch stuck in the on position. If any team slows him down in the playoffs, it will do so by tracking him with several players, providing the proper help, and -- this last part is important -- limiting his free throw attempts. Even then, Thomas will get his, and the constant pressure he applies will make everything easier for his teammates.

But Butler wants to defend Thomas, and the matchup could be both entertaining and critical. Though Butler believes he can chase Boston's star for the entire game, let's assume he won't do that; it would be too taxing for him when he carries such a huge offensive burden. Still, he could slide over to Thomas during crunch-time, like he did during a Feb. 16 game the Bulls won by a single point.

Over the final 8:23 of that game, Thomas scored 11 points on 3-for-8 shooting, mostly with Butler as the primary defender. Though that's not up to Thomas' usual efficiency standards (which are abnormal in all the best ways), an examination of the tape showed that had as much to do with Butler's teammates as Butler himself. Bobby Portis blocked one of Thomas' layup attempts. Taj Gibson, in a switch, forced Thomas into a tough 3-point try. One man does not handle the Thomas assignment alone, which Butler understands.

"I look forward to that matchup," he told reporters Friday. "Especially what he's done this year for that team. I know that it's going to come at some point in time. I don't know when -- but I'm going to make it tough for him. For anybody that I'm guarding. Not just me, it's going to be a team effort. I'm going to get beat at times, I'm going to need guys to be there. If not, then we'll do it over and over again 'til somebody is there if I'm beat. But I look forward to that challenge. I want that."

Because Thomas' impact extends beyond his individual stats, it's important to look at how the whole team fared. During the aforementioned stretch, the Celtics shot 6 for 14 from the field, including 3 for 7 from the arc, and did not commit a single turnover. In other words, they scored at an efficient rate. Thomas opened by finding Kelly Olynyk for two scores. Later, he barely needed to try to bend Chicago's defense into a wide open shot for Celtics guard Terry Rozier:


Again: one man does not defend Thomas on an island. It takes a whole team's focus, and sometimes that leaves another Celtics player completely naked at the arc. Teams used to be able to throw Thomas, but he has improved at handling any type of defensive strategy. He recently said he spent a lot of time re-watching last year's first-round series with the Altanta Hawks.

Despite a memorable 42-point showing in Game 4, Thomas finished that series well below his normal efficiency levels. He shot just 39.5 percent from the field, including 28.3 percent from behind the arc. He's a much better player now, but that's why people still question whether he can carry his regular-season brilliance into the playoffs.

"I watched a lot of film on how Atlanta played me last year, so I'm ready for it," Thomas said. "I think the best players always adjust to what other teams are doing so I'm expecting (the Bulls) to do whatever they can to stop me, but I have trust in my teammates, confidence that once I do make they play they'll knock down the shots and the other team has to pick their poison."

The Bulls will likely try Butler on Thomas at some point. The sample of the matchup is small, and the Celtics offense functioned normally throughout it. There's no real evidence to suggest Butler is decidedly better at limiting the Celtics firecracker than Random Good Defender X. To support that claim, here's a small man dancing through an entire defense before toying with his oversized defender at the rim. If I were running on zero sleep and totally over-caffeinated, I might even suggest calling Thomas "Tiny Dancer" for plays like this:


Butler won't keep Thomas away from the rim all the time. But considering how many close games the Celtics have played, one possession or two could flip a game or even the entire series.

With the Celtics ahead by two, Thomas again tried to navigate past everybody for a layup, but Butler caught him from behind:


Despite getting blown by initially, Butler stuck with the play, recovered to catch up with Thomas, and blocked the shot at the rim. It was the one play Butler's size actually mattered, but it kept the Bulls in position to win the game. They prevailed in controversial fashion a minute later, when Butler got fouled (maybe) a moment before the buzzer.

The best players in the NBA don't get shut down. Thomas will score. But he might see Butler on a key possession when everything between them is magnified. If it comes to that, be ready for excitement, one way or another.

MY NOTE: Butler, Rondo and DWade. That's an interesting back court. I think the wildcards will be Lopez and Gibson, not these guys, but they will be very tough on the offensive end and will create opportunities for offensive rebounds for Lopez and Gibson. Defensively, Butler's good, Rondo hasn't been good in years and DWade won't last playing hard defense and contributing to the offense for more than 5 games.


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