The ballad of Jimmy Butler

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Jimmy Butler became the most potent player in the NBA playoffs, although it wasn’t enough in the end. What did we learn from his postseason transformation?

The Miami Heat are not advancing to the NBA Finals. Jimmy Butler did not win the inaugural Eastern Conference Finals MVP Award, but no one came out of the seven-game series between the Boston Celtics and the Heat looking better than him.

Despite his team’s defeat, Butler was the best player on the floor both in Game 7 and in the game that preceded it, putting together two back-to-back masterpieces that simultaneously cement his status as one of the league’s most impactful players while also raising the question of what makes Jimmy Buckets the player he is.

It feels strange and inaccurate to say this, but Jimmy Butler has never been one of the NBA’s elite. It sounds especially silly in light of his dominant performances throughout the postseason though, in his 11 NBA seasons, he has only made four All-NBA teams and has never been listed higher than the third team. And yet through three rounds of the playoffs, has anyone looked more dominant, more capable of singlehandedly taking over a game than Butler?

He scored 40 points four times in the playoffs after failing to do so a single time in the regular season and often looked like the best player in series that involved Trae Young, Joel Embiid, James Harden, or Jayson Tatum. It would be shocking, but this isn’t the first time this has happened. It is not like Butler executes a wholesale change in style once the postseason arrives. Rather, it is a focusing, a paring down as well as an expansion in scope. There is a level of intentionality and intensity here that cannot be summoned 82 games in a row. There is no longer anything on the horizon that one’s effort must be saved for. It is all to be poured out here.

What did we really learn about Jimmy Butler?

Butler remains a bit of a cipher though. Winning is the paramount concern to him, and he is so intent on communicating this that it can often come across as performative. His constant talk about desire and outworking the opposition and being at the gym at 2:30 in the morning is indeed a little exhausting, but the self-seriousness has always been undercut a bit by his love of coffee and Taylor Swift and dominoes. He may sometimes seem like he’s trying a little too hard to convince you of how intense he is, but he at least knows how to compartmentalize, how to be human in the moments between contests.

Something I think about a lot is the way things ended with Jimmy in both Minnesota and Philadelphia. In both situations, he appeared to be part of a team on the rise, with at least one young star who he could pair with to contend for a title for years. And yet, in less than a year, he walked away from both situations. After a theatrical blow-up in Minnesota, where he impugned Karl Anthony-Towns’ and Andrew Wiggins’ will to win, forcing the Wolves to deal him, he helped make the 76ers terrifying. Butler made a game-tying lay-up with four seconds left in Game 7 of the Conference Semifinals against the Raptors. But that was immediately made irrelevant by Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beating game-winner. A not insignificant part of me still believes the 76ers would have won it all that year if one of those four bounces had gone differently.

And then Butler left anyway. There were rumors about his dissatisfaction with the coaching staff and front office, with him saying after the fact that “I didn’t know who the f— was in charge. I think that was my biggest thing.” And so he found someone as maniacal and focused as him in Pat Riley, going to Miami even though they had missed the playoffs three of the last five seasons.

It is like he would rather lose with a group of like-minded players than win with more talented teammates who lack his singular focus. I guess he figures that, through his influence, talent, and force of hill, he can transform any group of like-minded teammates into a contender. The trick is finding people like that.

Jimmy Butler now finds himself in an ideal situation. He can only ever surpass the expectations placed upon him. I think of how little Allen Iverson is judged for never winning a championship. Merely dragging the 76ers to the Finals in 2001 was enough. Reggie Miller is seen the same way. There was only one Finals appearance in 2000, but there were enough great games and iconic moments that the Pacers’ failure to defeat the Lakers is secondary. Those other events transcend the lack of a title.

Despite not being seen as one of the NBA’s best players, Butler may be something more than a star. He is a culture incarnate, someone whose presence alone can transform a team into something more than the sum of its disparate parts.

You see, talking about Butler makes me feel a little silly, like someone trafficking in mysticism or pseudoscience. It forces me to talk about things like “grit” and “determination” and “passion” as if they are calculable and actual instead of abstractions that can be seen and interpreted however one wants. In the NBA, everyone wants to win, and the talent level is so high that a surplus of passion is not enough to make up for a deficit in ability.

Yet then there’s Jimmy, already supremely talented, barreling through defenses with a surplus of determination. It is not quite enough to change his fate, but enough to stave it off longer than anyone would have imagined. It’s a failure noble enough to qualify as a success.

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