Jimmy Butler’s Incredible Journey
JIMMY BUTLER’S INCREDIBLE JOURNEY – The Jimmy Butler saga has been burned into my memory for many years now.
My beloved Chicago Bulls had been eliminated by the Miami Heat in five games in the 2011 eastern conference finals. While Derrick Rose had put together an MVP season, it was clear that the team needed to build around him.
With the 30th pick of the NBA Draft, the Bulls selected Jimmy Butler from Marquette University. During his rookie season under then-head coach, Tom Thibodeau, Butler averaged a pedestrian 2.6 points in 8.5 minutes per outing. But Butler became one of the best two-way players in the NBA over the next several seasons. And in his last three seasons with the Bulls, he averaged over 20 points per game.
Despite his ascension to stardom, the front office viewed him as a disposable asset and subsequently traded him to the Minnesota Timberwolves on draft night in 2017 in exchange for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the No. 7 pick – Lauri Markkanen. LaVine is the only player still with the Bulls out of that trio.
Meanwhile, Butler helped guide Minnesota to its first playoff berth in 14 seasons. Sure, they were ousted by Houston Rockets in five games, but Butler had a hand in helping the franchise become relevant again.
But just 10 games into the 2018-19 campaign, Butler was dealt to the Philadelphia 76ers. That squad advanced to the conference semifinal round. And thanks to a spectacular shot by Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors eliminated the Sixers in seven games on their way to winning the championship.
After a one-year stay in Philadelphia, the Sixers worked out a four-team trade that sent Butler to the Miami Heat. At this stage of his career, there was no denying his talent. The downside of the narrative was the teams that he played on had not enjoyed a ton of postseason success. Given that fact, it was reasonable to wonder if that same trend would play out in Miami.
In his first year with his new team, Butler averaged 19.9 points, 6.7 assists, and 6.0 rebounds per contest. After failing to help lead his previous teams on deep playoff runs, that would not be the case here. In fact, the Heat advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2014. Unfortunately for Butler and the Heat, their counterpart was none other than a Lakers squad that included LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Bam Adebayo (shoulder) and Goran Dragic (foot) sustain injuries in Game 1 of that Finals series. Adebayo wasn’t quite himself going forward and Dragic – who was the team’s leading scorer going into the Finals – missed the rest of the series.
Albeit with a short-handed roster, Butler did his best to ensure that the Finals matchup was not s one-sided affair. He averaged 26.2 points per contest on 55.2 percent shooting. Butler also posted a pair of triple-doubles in Game 3 (40 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists) and Game 5 (35 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists). Miami did win those two contests but ultimately fell to the Lakers in six games.
Despite Butler posting another 20-point-per-game campaign in 2020-21, Miami was swept by a Milwaukee Bucks team that went on to the franchise’s first title in five decades.
While that season didn’t end the way the organization had hoped, the front office opted to sign Butler to a four-year, $184 million extension.
“Jimmy is the anchor and face of our franchise along with Bam [Adebayo] and Kyle [Lowry],” Heat president Pat Riley said in a statement, via ESPN. “With Jimmy, we get an All-NBA player, an All-NBA Defensive player, tough as nails, and a complete player across the board. He’s very deserving of this contract as he continually puts himself at the top of the league at his position. Having him in the HEAT organization has been a great, great coup for us.”
Butler rewarded the franchise with another outstanding campaign (21.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per contest). Even more important, Miami advanced to the conference finals for the second time in three seasons.
And the team was one made 3-pointer away from going back to the Finals, but it was not meant to be.
The 2023 Campaign
This season has been anything but easy for the Heat. They had an up-and-down season at best. And as a result, they needed a win in the play-in tournament to qualify for the playoffs, but even that road was a difficult one to travel. Miami was beaten by the Atlanta Hawks in the first play-in game. And the team needed a 15-1 run to close out the Bulls to capture the last playoff berth in the conference.
Taking into consideration how this team limped into the playoffs, a matchup against the overall top-seeded Bucks was not ideal. To everyone’s surprise, Miami upended Milwaukee in five games. The team also overcame double-digit fourth-quarter deficits in the last two games of the series.
What did the Butler do?
Well, just about everything. He averaged 37.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 4.8 assists on 59.7 percent shooting and 44.4 percent from deep. While his scoring wasn’t quite as impressive against the New York Knicks (24.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 6.0 assists), Butler did enough to help the Heat advance to their third conference finals in four seasons. Ironically, it is a rematch against the same Boston Celtics that eliminated the Heat in seven games last year.
Just like the Bucks series, very few people thought that the Heat would match up well against a Celtics team that finished with the second-best record in the conference. Someone forgot to pass the memo along to Butler and the Heat.
In the series opener, the Celtics seemed to be in control. But thanks to a 46-point third quarter in which Miami outscored Boston by 21 points, Butler and the Heat stole Game 1.
In that contest, Butler finished with a stat line of 35 points, five rebounds, and seven assists. Butler also had six steals as well.
As was the case in the opener, the Celtics controlled the game early. And they were up by as many as 12 points early in the final frame. But just like the Heat turned things around in the third quarter in Game 1, it was the fourth quarter that proved to be the Celtics’ undoing. After taking a 96-87 lead, Miami outscored Boston 24-9 down the stretch on its way to a 111-105 victory to go up 2-0 in the series.
Once again, Butler led Miami with 27 points, eight rebounds, six assists, and three steals. To be objective, though, Butler did have some help as Bam Adebayo finished just one assist shy of a triple-double (22 points, 17 rebounds, and nine assists. Duncan Robinson and Caleb Martin scored 40 of Miami’s 42 bench points.
Butler had a somewhat quiet outing in Game 3. He finished with 16 points on 5-for-13 shooting. He also tallied eight rebounds, six assists, and two steals. Despite that being his lowest point total of this surprising postseason run, it was more than enough as the Heat trounced the Celtics to the tune of 128-102.
As great as Butler has been since joining the Heat, he has always preferred that the team and culture take precedence over him being the focal point. Here’s his response following Game 1 of the ECF, when he was asked if he thought this kind of postseason run was possible.
“Damn right I did,” Butler said, via ESPN. “Damn right we did. And the best part about it is we still don’t care what none of y’all think, honestly speaking. We don’t care if you pick us to win. We never have. We never will. We know the group of guys we have in this locker room. We know that Coach [Erik Spoelstra] puts so much confidence and belief in each and every one of us. Coach Pat [Riley] as well.
“So, our circle is small, but the circle got so much love for one another. We pump constant confidence into everybody. We go out there and we hoop, and we play basketball the right way, knowing that we’ve always got a chance.”
Thanks to Butler’s ability to step up when his team needs him to make plays, along with instilling confidence in his younger teammates, Miami is just one win away from going back to the Finals for the first time since 2020.
One of the reasons why I appreciate what Butler brings to the table is that he continues to prove that good things happen when you’re willing to put in the work – a sentiment that should motivate and inspire each and every one of us.