Coming into Monday night's game between the Bulls and the Rockets, all eyes were going to be on the matchup on the wing between James Harden and Jimmy Butler. Harden and Butler may be the two best wings in basketball this season with LeBron James easing into a new situation in Cleveland and Kevin Durant consistently stuck battling injuries. Harden is No. 2 in the latest SB Nation MVP rankings (dropping tomorrow!) while Butler is No. 4.
Harden entered this season as the consensus choice for the fictional title of "best shooting guard alive", and has justified it by turning in a career-year. It makes sense for a 25-year-old in his sixth season. He's the focal point of everything Houston does offensively, ranking No. 5 in the league in usage rate (where he's tied with Derrick Rose). He's leading the league in scoring at 27 points per game, has bumped up his assist rate to career-high levels and has finally started playing more attentive defense. Maybe he saw the Vines.
Butler's rise to become one of the best players in the league this year is .... stupefying? Astonishing? Literally unbelievable, to be the point where it is actually hard to believe even as we are watching it develop? It's all of that and more. Both Harden and Butler are posting true shooting percentages in the 59 percent range. Only Harden has drawn more shooting fouls than Jimmy. Both are incredible at converting two-point shots, with Jimmy making 51.5 percent of his twos this season, the exact same percentage that Harden made last season (this year Harden is just over 48 percent in that department).
The biggest difference is usage, where Butler doesn't even rank in the top 100 of usage rate (he's No. 101). Whereas Harden has 133 turnovers, Butler has 48 turnovers while playing only 30 more minutes than Harden on the season.
Because of Mike Dunleavy's injury, Butler and Harden didn't start out on each other early in the game. Tom Thibodeau let Kirk Hinrich try to defend his position, and the results were mostly unsuccessful. Harden created a ton of separation on a stepback jumper against Hinrich (image below) for a make his first attempt, drove at him for a made layup on his second attempt and used a screen to drain a three on his third attempt. Hinrich did get a block on a Harden drive in there, but before the first quarter was even over it was evident the Bulls had to stick Butler on Harden. The pace was simply too fast and the Bulls couldn't afford to let the game get out of control early.
The first three possessions with Jimmy on Harden in the first quarter went like this: Harden drives and misses a floater, Harden beats Butler left to the rim for a layup, and finally:
The only issue with this play is Butler didn't step over him like the reverse Allen Iverson on Tyronn Lue. Aside from that, it was perfect.
Harden would end halftime with 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting and the Bulls and Rockets were tied at 62. From that point on, the Bulls defense took over.
Harden finished the second half 0-for-9 from the field for three points, while Butler was 5-of-12 for 16 points. Obviously it was not a straight one-on-one matchup because the Bulls play defense with five men on a string. Chicago was switching often, with Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Pau Gasol each drawing the assignment at times in the second half. For the most part, though, this was Jimmy and Harden going at each other and Jimmy having the upper hand.
Two possessions really stood out to me. The first came with the game tied at 75 with five minutes left in the third quarter. Harden looped around the halfcourt off two (poor) screens but Butler stuck with him to smother him on the wing. At this point Houston cleared out for him and it was basically an isolation. Harden drove to the middle of the floor but couldn't create any separation. Butler forced him into a miss.
Letting Harden get to the middle of the floor like that is usually game over. When Hirich was guarding him on the first possession of the game and Harden drove to the middle floor and hit him with the stepback, this is what happened:
Don't take this as a shot at Hinrich, either. James Harden is really good! It's a testament to Butler's defense that even one of the best wing scorers alive couldn't get space to shoot against him.
The second example came at the end of the game with the Bulls up by four. A simple 1-2 pick-and-pop was designed to get Harden the ball on the wing and let him go to work. He tried to do just that, but Jimmy wouldn't let him:
Again: really terrific recovery from Butler against the stepback.
We've known Jimmy is a warrior defender ever since he logged five 48-minute games in the playoffs his second season in the league and held LeBron to 43.8 percent shooting in a series during a season when he shot 56.5 percent from the floor. The real improvement in Butler's game this season is obviously on the offensive end. Like everything else with Jimmy Butler this year, it's pretty mind blowing that as his offensive ability has taken a leap, his defense has remained as great as ever.
James Harden -- the NBA's leading scorer -- was just held without a field goal in the second half. Long live Jimmy Butler.