Jimmy Butler downplays Timberwolves-Bulls matchup, but Zach Lavine doesn't

K.C. Johnson, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Basketball

CHICAGO -- Jimmy Butler told reporters after Wednesday's overtime loss in Cleveland that Friday night will be just another game. Zach LaVine didn't.

"Of course it means a little bit extra," LaVine said.

Friday marks the first time the Bulls and Timberwolves will play since they consummated a blockbuster trade in June that altered the path of both franchises.

LaVine, along with Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen, is one of the faces of the Bulls' rebuild. Butler, with his indefatigable, two-way, All-Star talent, is the piece that has pushed the Timberwolves into playoff contention, which would end a 13-season drought.

"I've always said the three most competitive players I've been around in my career are Reggie Miller, Kevin Garnett and Jimmy Butler," said coach Fred Hoiberg, whom Butler once challenged to coach him harder. "Those guys never backed down from any challenge or shied away from any big shot. Jimmy is as good as I've been around from that standpoint. I'm happy for him. He's in a great spot, and his team will be there right up until the end."

Don't believe Butler downplaying his return. In a phone interview last summer just after the trade, Butler said returning would be "emotional." The Bulls will honor Butler and Taj Gibson, also making his first trip back to the United Center as a visitor, with a video tribute.

In the direct aftermath of the deal, the Bulls were widely panned. Never mind that both franchises got exactly what they wanted. Many overlooked that Tom Thibodeau, in his role as executive, knew the talent he was giving up to acquire the All-Star in his prime to solidify his young core. The Timberwolves would've drafted Markkanen at No. 7 had they stayed there.

The Bulls, who also surrendered the draft rights to Justin Patton at No. 16, picked a lane to rebuild.

"I didn't care," LaVine said about the widespread public reaction. "I know what I can do and what I bring to the table. So I hold up my end of the bargain and public eye doesn't really affect real basketball people.

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"I'm going to be the best Zach LaVine; that's who I am. I'm not here to replace anybody but to become the next young guy for the Chicago Bulls, work my butt off and take this back to where it should be. You can't replace a guy when you're not that person. I'm Zach LaVine. I'm going to play like me, act like me. That's just how I carry myself."

In fact, LaVine had nothing but positive memories from his time and relationships formed with the Timberwolves. Ex-teammates like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins reached out to him when he returned from ACL rehab. And he still remembers the late Flip Saunders handing him a slip of paper to emphasize the bond he would be a part of as the team's young core.

Until he wasn't.

"I feel like it would've been hard for all three of us to stay on the same team," LaVine said, referencing Wiggins and Towns. "We all talked about it in the locker room, messing around: 'One day, one of us is going to be on a different team.' It was me and you move forward. It's a great opportunity here that I embrace. I'm very happy with the situation I'm in.

"And I'm happy for (Minnesota). All those dudes put in hard work. The trade made it possible for them to get to that point. They added some very key pieces, people playing at extremely high levels. Adding Jimmy, Taj, Jeff Teague and a couple other pieces, made that team look like a really, really, really contender. No hard feelings from me. We're going to get to that point as well with the Chicago Bulls."

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