- ESPN.com NBA writer since 2010
- Covered Cleveland Cavs for seven years
- Author of two books
MIAMI — Jimmy Butler is worth the drama.
That isn’t exactly how Erik Spoelstra termed Butler’s game on Tuesday night, of course. The Miami Heat coach was his usual controlled self after guiding his team to a 118-107 victory over the Boston Celtics, fueled by Butler’s greatness, to take a 1-0 lead in the NBA Eastern Conference finals.
“If you’re driven by competition, and the stakes get raised, you’re going to raise your level of play,” Spoelstra said after Butler assembled a brilliant 41-point, nine-rebound, five-assist, four-steal, three-block masterpiece.
“This level is high-level, this competition, and he senses it, and he knows it. He feels it. And he was able to produce and put us in a position to feel comfortable to be able to win this game.”
But back in March when Butler had pushed Spoelstra to the brink, in the midst of a sideline outburst during a game against the Golden State Warriors, he barked at Butler, “I always knew you were crazy!” as the argument spilled onto the court.
Spoelstra has long known Butler is maniacal. With his training, with his intensity and, yes, with the way he needles teammates and coaches. And he can be driven to incredible feats by his thirst to win.
In the 48 hours after the outburst, as the meetings between Butler and team management took place, it wasn’t clear how the crossroads moment would play out. Of course, now that moment can be spun as galvanizing. The Heat are 15-6 since, have the No. 1 seed in the East and are three wins from reaching the Finals.
But even some of Spoelstra’s closest friends had never seen him like that, not just the emotional outburst in the huddle, but the dark brooding he did for the rest of that quarter, almost stopping coaching as he managed the fury.
For Butler, three seasons worth of give-and-take with Spoelstra finally led to finding the line. It wasn’t just that moment with Butler verbally shoving back at his coach, it was a long build-up.
“Spo was exasperated,” one team source said.
Even Butler, who sometimes seems to actually enjoy creating conflict on his team, wondered whether this was a breaking point, sources said. Two days later, after Spoelstra missed a game because of an unrelated personal matter, he returned, reset and ready.
Butler was relieved, so was the rest of the team and they started over because at the end of the day and the end of the season, Butler is worth it.
What he brings, especially in a playoff setting, buys him more leeway. It’s the NBA way, always has been and always will be. It’s a little tougher at times for the Heat, an organization that thrives on holding players to high standards and not being afraid to attack problems, but it’s true just the same.
So Tuesday night in the third quarter, after the Heat had fallen down by as many as 13 points in the first half, Butler wasn’t afraid to test his coach again. The game was in its fragile moments, the Heat were on a run to take the lead and Butler made two gambles to try for steals.
If he missed them, it might have led to easy baskets for the Celtics and a turn in momentum. But Butler didn’t, picking off Jayson Tatum passes and made a 3-pointer and a dunk, the most powerful of his 17 points in the quarter.
“I tell you right now, Spo doesn’t like me, he doesn’t like whenever I do it,” Butler said of the gambles. “Luckily, I was 2-for-2 on those particular shoot-the-gap passing lanes. But I don’t get them all the time, and then you see him give a look over there.”
Butler does it because he trusts his instincts and because he knows he has developed a line of credit with Spoelstra, even if it sometimes dips into the red. And Spoelstra gives some latitude, even if inside it can infuriate him, because he knows Butler is the driving force behind Miami’s pursuit of a championship.
He was in the last series against the Philadelphia 76ers, when Butler averaged 27.5 points, eight rebounds and six assists. He was again the motivating force in Game 1.
“Those two steals kind of changed the momentum,” Spoelstra said, totally unfazed by their break in his preferred protocol. “Every time and pocket in the game when we needed to control the game or get the right shot or make the right decision, Jimmy had his fingerprints on that.”
Butler’s fingerprints on games sometimes end up with Spolestra’s fingerprints on wine glasses trying to unwind. Back when the younger Spoelstra was still finding his legs as a coach more than a decade ago, team president Pat Riley would have Spoelstra come to his office after rough losses. Riley would select a bottle from his shelf and they would sit and sip in silence.
Earlier this year, Spoelstra was named one of the top 15 coaches in NBA history as part of the league’s 75th anniversary celebration, making the list with Riley. If Spoelstra, 51, wants it, he will probably have a good chance of being the national team coach in the future. He’s at the top of his craft and very likely in the prime of his coaching years.
Butler can still drive him up a wall. And he can also get him one step closer to a championship by doing the same to the Celtics.
“I want to run into people and see who falls down first, who is going to quit first,” Butler said. “I think that’s the style of basketball I like to play.”
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