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Jimmy Butler learned to be a playmaker, but now the Heat need him to be a superstar

Seerat Sohi
·8-min read

Flanked by his Miami Heat braintrust at a conference table in the American Airlines Arena last June, team president Pat Riley played a video to show then-free agent Jimmy Butler what he envisioned.

It featured Butler wearing a Heat jersey, clasping at tough rebounds, diving for loose balls and dishing passes to shooters and cutters, and it featured music by Irish singer-songwriter Dermot Kennedy, one of Butler’s favorite artists, who crooned, “I wanna be king in your story. I wanna know who you are.”

Butler has built himself from the ground up into a multipurpose All-Star scorer. But carnal pleasures die hard. He loves plunging into the muck. He’s a grinder at heart. “It was a level of nuance that they picked up about him,” Bernie Lee, Butler’s agent, said. “Things that gave him enjoyment outside of just being the scorer. He’s got a connection with the group that really gives him fulfillment.”

The video also vindicated Butler’s desire to make plays. He incorporated point guard drills into his workouts as early as 2015. When he was with the Philadelphia 76ers, he pushed for more responsibility with the ball.

Miami built a fee-flowing system of cutters and shooters around Butler. He spent the regular season honing his decision-making, eclipsing 30 points just four times. He studied his teammates’ tendencies, mastering counters, calling plays, dictating flow. When teammate Bam Adebayo emerged as a playmaking All-Star, they split duties.

After the Los Angeles Lakers, the Heat have been the second-best passing team in the playoffs. That — alongside a staunch, versatile defense — has powered them to an unlikely NBA Finals match against the Lakers. But in Game 1, the Heat lost Adebayo and point guard Goran Dragic. They looked rudderless until Butler filled the hole his teammates left with a 40-point triple-double in Game 3 to shave the Lakers’ series lead to 2-1. Game 4 is Tuesday night, with the Lakers 7.5-point favorites.

To watch Butler’s progression in Game 3 on Sunday night was to watch a man come to terms with the reality of his burden. Twice, the Lakers dared Butler to drive and shoot over Anthony Davis. He passed and turned the ball over. The Lakers continuously left Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a spindly 6-foot-5 guard, on an island against Butler. In time, Butler realized he had no choice but to barrel his way to the rim.

Miami Heat's Jimmy Butler (22) passes the ball against Los Angeles Lakers' Kyle Kuzma (0) during the first half in Game 3 of basketball's NBA Finals, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Jimmy Butler moves the ball during Game 3 of the NBA Finals. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Two minutes remained in the game when Butler crashed to the hardwood for what felt like the millionth time. He’d lay on the floor and close his eyes, his chest huffing and puffing in between tearing down the big, bad, bone-bruising Los Angeles Lakers’ interior defense. Then he got up and drilled his 13th and 14th free-throw attempts.

Butler’s 6-foot-7, 230-pound frame betrays minuscule body fat. But driving against LeBron James and Davis gives him the relative dimensions of a bowling ball. He emptied his cup by the end of his 44-minute tenure in Game 3. After the game, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was asked how he finds Butler pockets of rest. “To be honest, we can't afford that,” he said. Butler has sat for 21 minutes in three games. In that time, the Lakers outscored the Heat by 20. “That's why he puts in the work that he does,” continued Spoelstra. “That's why he does insane things year-round, offseason, to put himself in a position to be able to handle all this.”

He’s gone from impoverished in Tomball, Texas, to junior college to Marquette to the NBA Finals. At Marquette, Butler slept in the locker room. He survived the unrelenting tutelage of coach Buzz Williams and became a zealot for the emancipatory power of hard work. In the NBA, he’s done offseason three-a-days and wakes up at 3 a.m. to shoot. It’s so he can exact any toll, embrace any burden life offers — like a 2-1 deficit with the absence of an All-Star and a starter. It’s the responsibility he asked for when he signed with the Heat.

“You walk around our hallways,” Spoelstra said on Monday, “there's a lot of legacy and history that I think if you're coming into our building and you're a real competitor and a real winner, you understand it even at an unspoken level. That ain't for everybody. Some people can walk through those hallways and get intimidated by that legacy and our expectations. [Butler] wants all of that. He wants the pressure. He wants the expectations.”

When Butler walked through those halls last summer, he saw a foundation built on consistency. There was, of course, Riley, and there was Spoelstra, the shiniest diamond to emerge from the dimly lit pressure chamber that is the Heat video room. Alonzo Mourning’s jersey hangs in the rafters. He also runs player development. Shane Battier, who helped Miami win two titles, is head of analytics. Nick Arison, son of Heat owner Micky Arison, was once a ballboy. GM Andy Elisburg has been with the Heat since their inaugural season in 1988. The franchise is walking history, bound by battles won and lost, tethered by an addiction to work. The Heat saw Butler as one of their own.

Secure with an 11-point lead with 10 seconds left, Heat forward Kelly Olynyk was dribbling out the clock at the end of Game 3 when Butler demanded the ball and bear-hugged it into his chest until the shot clock expired. You don’t see this a lot. Sometimes, players pass the ball to teammates at the last second, trying to avoid the turnover, or heave it at the basket.

Butler was a hawk for stat-conscious transgressions in his previous stops. He was irked when he saw even a tiny flicker of headspace get wasted on individual goals. He noticed when teammates showed off in hometown stops, and which young players were manufacturing moments in marquee games. “I don’t give a damn if people shoot,” he said in 2016 when he was a Bull. “But I’m just saying, do it for your teammates. Don’t do it for no other reason.”

Butler’s obnoxiously high standards ruffled feathers and drove some teammates crazy. Some more than others. He couldn’t understand why people didn’t approach life as he did. He didn’t want to lower his expectations either. He didn’t know how. So he kept searching.

In Butler’s sole season in Minnesota, confetti poured when the Timberwolves made the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. Butler wandered into the tunnel, wondering why they were celebrating something they were supposed to do.

In November, he put it this way to Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill: “The money, the houses, the cars, the fame. There are so many other things people play for.” Most people want to win, but they want other things, too.

A team’s ability to live up to its potential is tied with how much it weaves individual and collective goals. This Heat team seems uniquely immune from that tug-of-war.

“We're all about winning,” Butler said after Game 3. “I say it all the time, but I mean it. The group that Coach Pat and Coach Spo put together, it's always to win, nothing else. So I hope the next game I score zero, and y'all talk all you want to talk and we win so I come up here and say the same thing.”

Butler cites Superman as a personal hero. “He’s a God,” Butler said in 2016. “And he doesn’t abuse his power. He doesn’t want the fame. He could walk around in his cape if he wanted to. No. He wants to be a normal human being that works at Metropolis.”

Sharpshooter Duncan Robinson says the only time Butler yells at him is when he’s not shooting. Butler envisions a perfect game where his teammates fire from all cylinders, on both ends of the floor, where Robinson nails multiple threes. “And I'm going to jump up and down and give him a big hug and maybe a slight kiss on the back of his head,” Butler continued, “because I know how important that that guy is to our team.”

Butler isn’t accustomed to scoring binges, preferring to distribute the ball. Good, sustainable basketball, in his mind, requires balance. “We celebrate every win,” Butler said after Monday’s practice. “But when somebody else has a great night that nobody expected, I love it. I really do.”

“We don't care what [Butler] thinks about that right now,” Spoelstra said frankly after Monday’s practice. “We're way past that now. There's no turning back. He has to make some things happen for us. He did that in a brilliant way [in Game 3], and he'll likely have to do something very similar to that again. For us to be able to accomplish what we want to accomplish, you can't just be normal. You have to be extraordinary.” This is no time for Clark Kent.

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