When Jimmy Butler addresses the media, he says all the things athletes are supposed to say. Just take this sampling from his pre-Game 4 of the NBA Finals media availability:
“I’m just all about winning.”
“I do whatever you ask me to do to put my team in the best position to win.”
“I’m gonna take what the game gives me, whatever my teammates ask me to do.”
“It’s easy whenever you have the guys that I have around me.”
Professional athletes have been trained, over and over, often in college before their pro career, on how to say the right things to the media. And Butler uses all the right lines. But there’s something different about the Heat star — if his play is any indication, Butler genuinely means every last word he says.
HEAT INJURY UPDATES: Will Bam Adebayo, Goran Dragic play in Game 4?
Jimmy Butler, lock-down defender
Ever since his days at Marquette, Butler has been viewed as a defensive stopper. Put him on an opponent’s best player and let Butler scratch and claw his way to winning the matchup.
Butler’s NBADraft.net profile referred to him as a “tough defender with all the tools needed to become very valuable in this area.” He’s lived up to that assessment, too, making four All-Defense teams during his time in the league.
As a second-year player on Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls, Butler’s teammates tried to call him the “Kobe Stopper” after he held Kobe Bryant to 16 points. Butler didn’t like that. But that’s what Butler was known as early in his career, a defender — certainly not the type of player who’d score 40 points in the NBA Finals one day.
Back then, Butler’s biggest believers might have been the folks around him — veterans Luol Deng and Ronnie Brewer, along with Chicago assistant coach Adrian Griffin.
“They were always telling me: ‘You’re gonna make your mark in this league. You deserve to be here. You belong here,’” Butler recalled Monday. “And that’s when I really started to be like, you know what? If these guys are telling me that, they’ve been here way longer than I have, they know what it takes. That’s when I started to think, ‘Maybe you can become a decent player in this league.’”
Finding his scoring touch
Butler likely would’ve gone down as a “decent” NBA player if he’d just remained a solid defender with limited scoring chops. But from his third pro season to his fourth, Butler’s shooting took a step up and the rest of his offensive game followed.
In 2014-15, Butler improved to 38 percent from 3-point range after shooting 28 percent the year prior. His overall shooting from the floor rose about 7 percent, as did his percentage at the foul line. The end result was 20.0 points per game and Butler’s first All-Star nod.
“I worked,” Butler said in 2015. “I worked hard. That’s what I’ve always done. I’m surprised, but at the same time I’m not. Try to stay here, that was my thought (when I got drafted), find a way to stick in this league no matter what it may be. This is what you love to do so find a way to make it your job for a long time.”
Butler didn’t lose his defensive intensity with the increased scoring load. If anything, the criticisms of Butler centered around offensive inefficiencies that were easily explained away by how hard he worked as a defender. And sure, all athletes are going to talk about how hard they’ve worked. Butler’s improvement the next few years continued to show he was telling the truth.
Two years later, Butler’s scoring average had increased to 23.9 points per game. He’d raised his foul shooting, rebound average, assist average and steals average, too. When Butler said that he’s “always (worked),” he wasn’t just putting together a sound byte.
Butler’s NBA stops
The Bulls decided to go in a different direction after that career season for Butler, though, and traded him to the Timberwolves. He lasted a year and a half with Minnesota before being traded to Philadelphia, where he remained for less than a full season.
Twice, Butler had arrived on teams with two established stars and failed to perfectly fit in. But his mindset hadn’t changed — he just wanted to win, as he told the media again Monday. He just needed to find the spot where winning looked how he imagines it.
In the Heat, Butler found that.
“We celebrate every win, but when somebody else has a great night that nobody expected, I love it,” Butler said Monday. “I really do. You can say I’m supposed to do what I did last night, but I don’t think so. I think I’m waiting on Tyler (Herro), Duncan (Robinson), Bam (Adebayo), one of those guys to have a night to where I’m just like, I get the opportunity to play with that? What a blessing.”
Even when it was LeBron James and the “Heatles” in South Beach, that mindset existed. Afterthoughts like Mike Miller and Chris Anderson played occasionally crucial roles for Miami because James and the team’s culture wanted that. The same is true with Butler.
How does Butler follow up a 40-point triple-double?
A year of fitting in with his new team, a group that actually wants to “get to the grind” — as Andre Iguodala recently put it — has led Butler to the precipice of history. He’s already made some, too.
Butler’s 40-point, 11-rebound, 13-assist performance brought on statistical comparisons to Jerry West, LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and Shaquille O’Neal. A day later, Butler was asked whether he’s OK with that being the way the rest of the series goes.
“I have to (accept that),” Butler said. “I think as long as we win, everybody’s happy with that. But we’ve gotta win.”
The 13 assists should already show that Butler was far from selfish in Game 3. He didn’t even attempt a 3-pointer — he took good looks in the lane and got to the foul line. During Game 1, Butler twice sprained his left ankle but returned to the game. Before action tipped off in the bubble, Butler didn’t want his name on the back of his own jersey. And earlier in the postseason, he had games when he didn’t reach double-figure scoring until the fourth quarter because other players were hot or because his focus was on defense and rebounding. To Butler, that’s just fine.
Think back to the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals between the Raptors and 76ers. Game 7 will always be remembered for Kawhi Leonard’s four-bounce game-winner. But moments prior, Butler had run the floor, received an outlet pass and dribbled without hesitation toward the right side of the rim for a game-tying layup. It could’ve sent Game 7 to overtime.
A few months later, again all Butler cared about was the outcome: “You think about it. It’ll haunt you for the rest of your days — especially if you don’t get an opportunity — that you were that close.”
He’s even closer now, and how much it matters is showing. Butler’s outburst late in Game 3 on Monday, when he repeatedly yelled “in trouble,” wasn’t like the other quotations throughout this story — it wasn’t stated to the media. It was a heat-of-the-moment refrain, something Butler explained that LeBron James had said to him earlier in the game.
But Butler has also proven he can back up his words, that the statements that sound cliché are real to Butler himself. So maybe the Lakers should be worried that Butler said they’re in trouble.
“That time for me is now,” Butler said Monday. “Talking about it then, being in this position now, I’m here for a reason just like everybody else is.”
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