He does things his way, which is not a bad thing — and the results prove it. Butler has led Miami to the Eastern Conference semifinals for the third time in his four seasons with the Heat; this year, a matchup with the New York Knicks awaits, starting Sunday.
“He puts his soul into competing,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “When you put that much physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energy into that will to win, that is so unique. You have to be able to recharge your batteries to gear up and do that over and over and over again. If you don’t, you’ll burn out. And I think him being able to get away and clear his headspace has been one of the most productive things for him.”
A championship is what lured Butler to Miami, and it’s all that matters to him now. A revival of the Heat-Knicks playoff rivalry that was born a generation ago? He doesn’t care. The outside world’s opinions or predictions? He immediately dismisses them. Facing his former coach Tom Thibodeau in this series? He thinks that’s irrelevant.
“I know what he’s about. He knows what we’re about,” Thibodeau, the Knicks coach who had Butler on his teams in Chicago and Minnesota, said Friday. “So, let’s go.”
It doesn’t take long to figure out what Butler is about. He plays hard, demands others do the same and makes it worthwhile.
“Jimmy’s just a talented player,” guard Kyle Lowry said. “I think Jimmy goes out there and, every assignment that the other team gives him, he tries to take that personally. … I’m rolling with Jimmy at all times.”
Added center Bam Adebayo: “I’m just thankful that he’s on my team.”
It would be inaccurate to say that the regular season doesn’t matter to Butler. It would not be inaccurate to say that the postseason matters more. Case in point: He has scored at least 40 points in a game eight times since joining the Heat — and all eight of those performances came in the playoffs, including two in the series against Milwaukee, the first a 56-point masterpiece in Game 4 and the other a 42-point effort in the clinching Game 5.
Social media lit up when Butler was putting on his show in Game 5.
— “Let’s stop faking on 22. Bro really like dat!” injured Heat guard Victor Oladipo wrote, referring to Butler by his jersey number.
Butler doesn’t like the notion that he becomes “Playoff Jimmy,” but it’s tough to argue otherwise. He averaged 22.9 points per game in the regular season — and averaged 37.6 points in Round 1 against the Bucks, the highest average of anyone so far in these playoffs.
“My teammates keep telling me to shoot the ball, shoot the ball more, attack,” Butler said. “That’s just what it was. No matter what, if I’m scoring, if I’m passing, defending, rebounding, whatever it may be, we’ve just got to win at all costs.”
Win at all costs. That’s his mantra off the court as well.
The world sees the highlights of Butler pointing at a scoreboard and telling Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday what he’s doing to him — that happened in Game 5 of Round 1 — but the world doesn’t see the highlights of Butler tormenting his close-knit inner circle. If they get on the basketball court with him, that obviously doesn’t work out well for them. When they play dominoes or card games, good luck. He famously wouldn’t even give teammates a discount when he was selling $20-a-cup coffee at the NBA’s restart bubble in 2020.
“I’ve got an incredible group that keeps me level-headed, that make my life not always just about basketball,” Butler said. “And I’ve got an amazing family, too.”
It’s all just Jimmy being Jimmy. He fits perfectly within the Heat organization, and Spoelstra figured that out right away.
“He is us and we are him,” Spoelstra said. “I just respect him so much for being such a unique, world-class, elite competitor. A lot of guys play the game of basketball in this league. He competes to win. That’s a different language. He’s desperate and urgent and maniacal and sometimes psychotic about the will to try to win and he’ll make everybody in the building feel it.”
Even when the Heat struggled this season, Butler never publicly changed his tune much. He kept insisting the same thing — that Miami has enough talent to win, that the Heat would figure out what they were supposed to do in time to compete for a title.
They were overwhelming underdogs in Round 1 and became the first No. 8 seed to advance by losing only one game against the top seed. Now comes Round 2, and the Knicks, and a chance to get back to the East finals for the third time in his Miami tenure.
“We’re a good group of basketball players and we’re having fun whenever we’re out there,” Butler said. “We’re playing basketball the right way and good things happen if you do that.”