MIAMI — Most of the time in Sunday’s NBA Eastern Conference three-game series, Jimmy Butler did something he doesn’t do very often: he helped out. He made dribbles, zipped to Heat teammates for shots and pushed for chances only when the chances were too smart to pass up.
Butler could try to overcome the struggling Boston Celtics. But he has molded the Heat into his image of relentlessness, confidence, and power their group of unsung players lead. Then, just before halftime Sunday, as if everyone needed a reminder of his presence, Butler hit the ball and headed it to Grant Williams of the Celtics, his latest nemesis, for a dunk off the glass.
After drawing a foul on a good shot, Butler fell to his back and stayed there longer than he needed to – to target Williams and make sure he made him look stupid again.
“In all honesty,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said, “Jimmy’s going to put his best foot forward in this game.”
Another game, another clinic provided by Miami, whose 128-102 victory on Sunday was the last gasp. The Heat, who have a 3-0 lead, will go for a sweep at home on Tuesday, driven by their hopes of winning as the eighth seed.
The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown called the Game 3 loss “embarrassing.” Boston coach Joe Mazzella took charge. He said: “I didn’t have them ready to play.”
All things considered, it was an understatement for Butler, who finished with 16 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists. But for the first time in the series, he encountered traps. Both he and Bam Adebayo found friends who were willing to help. Gabe Vincent scored 29 points, and Duncan Robinson finished with 22.
“Jimmy and Bam and I’ll add to that,” Spoelstra said. “They’re just giving these guys a boost of confidence.”
It would be easy to describe Butler as a showman, as someone who turns the arena into a stage. He is not a careless person. He hears. He interacts with opposing players. He sings alone. And he seems to enjoy those (many) moments when the packed arena waits for the next move.
Make no mistake: There is drama in his performance, especially in the playoffs. It was on full display in Game 2 on Friday, when Williams connected on a 3-pointer to tie it on Boston’s tight end midway through the fourth quarter. Williams began to spar with Butler on his way back to the court. Later, Butler scored on Williams and drew a foul. Afterward, Butler and Williams tapped each other on the forehead as they continued — to put it lightly? – to discuss.
“I love it,” Butler said. “I have everything.” It makes me feel special. It makes me want to win more. It makes me smile. When people talk to me, I’m like, well, I know I’m a good player if you want to talk to me from anyone you can talk to. “
For Williams, talking to Butler was wrong. The Heat closed the game with a 24-9 lead. After the win, Butler went to his press conference going “Someone’s Problem,” the song of country artist Morgan Wallenwhich Butler was playing on his iPhone.
“I’m hitting the locker room right now,” said Butler, who described himself as the team’s DJ “So I pick and choose what we listen to.”
The thing about Butler, though, is that all of his extracurriculars — and all of the attention he draws to himself, whether on purpose or not — are a means to an end. He encourages him, he forces him to do it. He is not ashamed for the sake of being ashamed. He is shy because being shy helps him succeed.
“He likes to win,” he said Mike Marquis, who was his teacher at Tyler Junior College, a two-year school about 100 miles southeast of Dallas. “Some people hate to lose. He loves to win. I think sometimes there’s a negative attitude and hate to lose, and bad games and all that. But when I trained him, he had none of that – he just loved to win. “
Butler, who had a troubled childhood, was undrafted out of Tomball High School in Texas. He had an offer from Centenary, a small college in Louisiana that has transitioned to Division III, and a limited offer from Quinnipiac. But Tyler, Butler said, was where he felt he wanted.
Joe Fulce, his teammate at Tyler and later at Marquette, recalled that Butler had an uncanny ability to “control his world” every time he played basketball. Outside of the gym, there were problems and challenges. During the exercise, many of the distractions of his daily life ceased to exist.
“It’s hard to do,” Fulce said. It’s like he was a magician.
The Marquis was captured another example of a single-minded focus as the NBA finished its 2019-2020 season in a bubble without spectators at Walt Disney World due to the coronavirus pandemic. While other players went crazy, Butler thrived on the defensive end, taking the fifth-place Heat all the way to the NBA Finals before defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in six games.
Today, Butler is one of the best players in the league and the world’s favorite low-energy drink. But he still finds a way to shut himself off from the world around him whenever he’s playing basketball, and he’s not that different from many of his peers he ignored until he found success in Miami. The Heat have nine undrafted players on their roster, including Vincent and Robinson.
Butler went to a junior college. He was the last pick in the first round of the 2011 NBA draft. Even this season, he was not selected as an All-Star (which, in retrospect, may have been an oversight). Veteran manager Kyle Lowry has called Butler one of the most unselfish stars he’s played with.
“He’s us, and we’re him,” Spoelstra told reporters early in the postseason, as a way to describe the bond between Butler and the team around him. “Sometimes, psychotic meets psychotic.”
Together, they are one win away from the NBA finals.