MIAMI — During one of countless conversations before the 2011 NBA draft, Bulls general manager Gar Forman asked Marquette coach Buzz Williams to project Jimmy Butler's professional future based on coaching him for three seasons.
"I remember telling Coach Forman: 'Jimmy will never be the best player on the floor, nor will he ever be the best guy on your team. But your coach will have a difficult time taking him off the floor, and his teammates will respect him,' '' Williams told the Tribune on Tuesday. "He knew who he was.''
Now the basketball world knows too after Butler's loud introduction to the big stage Monday night, limiting LeBron James in the Bulls' Game 1 win. Butler registered playoff-career highs of 21 points and 14 rebounds but made his biggest impact with toughness and technique that forced James to earn every one of his 24 points — five below his career average against the Bulls.
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As Williams predicted before the Bulls made Butler a first-round draft pick two years ago, coach Tom Thibodeau has found it hard to take the 6-foot-7 forward off the floor. So lately, Thibodeau doesn't. The absence of Luol Deng coincided with Butler's emergence offensively to transform the player who logged just three minutes in the 2012 playoffs into an indispensable Bull.
"He's better than a lot of people think,'' said Heat guard Dwyane Wade, a fellow Marquette alumnus.
Word is spreading fast. Butler became the first player to play 48 minutes for three straight playoff games since Allen Iverson in 2005. Only Butler, Iverson, Nick Van Exel (1995) and Moses Malone (1981) have done so since the 1975-76 NBA-ABA merger. The streak includes Butler becoming the first player since Dave Cowens of the Celtics in 1973 to play every minute of Games 6 and 7 in a playoff series, company Cowens welcomed.
"I've watched the Bulls a lot and am impressed with Jimmy, who's a big, strong kid whose legs aren't going to bother him,'' Cowens said. "You grab your rest when you can. Keep yourself hydrated. He's probably hoping at times, 'Gee, I hope LeBron doesn't go at me too hard.' But the biggest challenge of playing every minute is foul trouble, not fatigue. I don't know if fatigue's that big of a deal.''
Not to Butler. Suddenly, there is an ironman creating national buzz this week not named Robert Downey Jr.
"This is what I wanted,'' Butler said. "A year ago in the playoffs, I was like, 'Man I want to play.' So a year later when I'm playing 48 minutes, I can't complain. I had to talk Luol's ear off and Ronnie (Brewer)'s ear off last year how I wanted to play, how I'm ready. Now the time's here, I have to produce.''
The only tiresome thing for Butler is being asked about being tired. Otherwise, the player nicknamed Jimmy Buckets has a bottomless supply of energy and enthusiasm.
"You learn to fight through (fatigue),'' he said. "It's all about your mental state. In your mind, if you know you can do it, your body will follow.''
The path Butler followed to the NBA spotlight from tiny Tomball, Texas — 35 miles outside Houston — was much less direct. The cowboy boots in Butler's locker reveal a man loyal to his roots and the family who took him in as a teenager abandoned by his parents. His personal difficulties contributed to Butler being a late bloomer who was Texas' 83rd-ranked prep player when he headed to Tyler Junior College.
"The 82nd-ranked kid went to The Citadel, and the 84th went Division II,'' Williams recalled. "Jimmy was the first player we signed at Marquette. He had no idea the world he walked into.''
Sometimes — like Tuesday, when Butler was being treated like the author of a book on defending LeBron titled "The James Rules'' — it still seems too big to grasp.
"Being from a small town, nobody expecting me to be in this position, starting in an NBA playoff game, playing 48 minutes, you couldn't have told me that in a million years,'' Butler said. "Hell, I didn't even believe it when I was in Tomball. It was a dream of mine.''
The reality surprises nobody who has seen Butler prepare for this opportunity. Before he was the player Thibodeau can't take off the court, he was the guy Tomball High School coach Bradley Ball couldn't kick out of the gym in the town of 10,753.
"He'd ask me for the key and spend hours in there, before school, after school, Saturday mornings,'' Ball said over the phone. "If it wasn't against state rules, he would have been in there Sundays too. Jimmy never stopped playing.''
Some things never change.