Imagine a horizon, pre-dawn. Now imagine a sun slowly lifting up from behind, its fingers of light reaching up toward the sky, a bright eventuality. The sun’s Jimmy Butler, flashing a smile over his shoulder, lifting for a pull-up jumper while his whole body curves to follow. Now picture the moon, still high in the clean dawn sky, blanching with the sun’s rising but hanging stubbornly around, unmistakeable. The moon’s Jimmy Butler, too. While we’re at it, so’s the horizon. A steady, spanning progression impossible to gain on, tapering where the human eye gets hazy looking back or squints in limited future sight.
He’s the scudding clouds, any birds lazily looping by, and the shadows soon stretching away from whatever’s in the sun’s way. By now you’re beginning to see the nature of this analogy much in the same way you’ve seen, as Butler proliferates in the playoffs, what’s been there all along. As a player his is not one role over another, by necessity he’s run the gamut of fits that have given his game an entirely environmental feel. He’s become every day only in the way we tend to relegate with familiarity the habits and landscape of routine, but now, in the light of a particularly dazzling morning, an emphatic 40-point, 11 rebound, 13 assist NBA Finals triple-double, the everyday becomes surprising enough to snatch the breath from you.
Butler has spent a career getting here. The same ten years his draft contemporaries — Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson — did, who ascended faster, maybe brighter for a time, throttled our gazes away from the league’s more rhythmic landscape shifting with its regular seasons where Butler was working to become not just the life-giving star to a franchise, not its necessary longevity, or the keeper of its history, handed off to him whole so that he might realize its future, but all of it, the entire ecosystem.
In a media scrum between Games 3 and 4 of the Finals, Butler looked languid as he offered a glimpse into this full scope of his game as an ideal through what “winning basketball” looks like.
“I think they know what buttons to press to get me to play the way that they want me to play,” he said. “I don’t think that’s winning basketball all the time. I don’t. I think winning basketball is Duncan’s [Robinson] going to go off for six or seven threes, Tyler [Herro] can do that, K [Kendrick] Nunn can do that, Jae’s [Crowder] going to have a big night, we’re all locked in defensively. To me those are the best wins. We celebrate every win, but when somebody else has a great night that nobody expected,” he gives a small shrug, almost apologetic in what it acknowledges, that the record win he’d given the Heat counts less than the idealistic team win he’s just then imagining, “I love it.”
In ten years he’s toured the NBA, his moves not proof of a problem but a honed determination enforced with every shift to find the perfect fit. Not all players are afforded the autonomy needed to be this exacting, to not settle in a profession when there’s no guarantee of what, if anything, is next. In the time and ground he’s covered moving from Chicago to Minnesota to Philadelphia to Miami, Butler has grown exceptional at gauging scope, playing a much longer game. But in tracking every potential move, whether in the scope of his career or in 48 minutes on the floor, Butler less readily assigns himself the self-importance that his contemporaries in NBA stardom do. It isn’t a matter of modesty as much as it is the symptom of the inherent restlessness that has pushed his game to evolve incredibly evenly. In his first regular season with Miami, Butler was averaging the most consistent points per game since he played in Chicago and recording career-high rebounds and assists, yet his game was regularly described as “quiet.” In the postseason it came as a surprise to some, even those calling the games, that Butler was not only shooting well but shooting at all. That he was elevating himself as a singular entity, a shooter, instead of everything, all at once.
Catching his breath on court after Miami’s Game 3 win Butler was asked how the Heat reset the series, “I think we realized that we belong,” he said, adding, “that they can be beat.” The Lakers fallibility had been something the Heat did not seem aware of through the first two games of the series, and while crucial, it was the bit on belonging that Butler circled back to the next day.
Asked if there was a moment he could remember where he changed his own expectations of himself, Butler recalled his time in Chicago alongside Luol Deng and Ronnie Brewer who assured him he would make his mark on the league. “You deserve to be here, you belong here,” he remembered them telling him, “And that’s when I really started to be like, you know what? If these guys are telling me that, they’ve been here longer than I have, they know what it takes, that’s when I started thinking you know what, maybe you can become a decent player in this league.”
A part of his reticence to really see himself in the singular has been the necessary patience in waiting and maintaining hope that his next step would be the right one, but in Butler’s head he’s always differentiated himself. Set aside the bravado, the blowing kisses on court and pulling on worn in cowboy boots off it, and Butler’s lone-wolf-no-club characterization has been, most often, enforced by him — there is no one he wants to prove it to more.
Where Butler’s ended up, the center of a restless, occasionally detrimentally encompassing system, where his own panoramic view, to his detriment, can skip over him as a key part of it, may finally strike the necessary balance between two extremes. With the Heat his scope narrows, the system demands it. “We stay focused on ourselves,” Butler repeated throughout his post-game. It’s this necessary zeroing in, the permission to play his way in a system that is so well-suited to it, that has given his roaming experience and bedrock of work the boost that’s elevated him as standalone player. He gets to be selfish, unselfishly.
To call what Butler has been doing in the Finals a breakout performance is to discount the steady work it took him to get here. Unrecruited out of high school, working his way from junior college to an athletic scholarship at Marquette, being picked 30th overall and playing as many minutes as he could get his hands on in his rookie year, a clipped lockout season. He oscillated between injuries and season-highs with the Bulls to show them he was someone to build around but he was traded for fresher legs on paper over proof on the floor. He went to Minnesota prepared to lead a promising young team but it turned out the Wolves did not want for a leader as much as a stabilizing proxy against mercurial bouts of effort by Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Townes. But Butler was too good and too physically laconic to play a convalescing buffer and curtly, crucially, opted out. It was the same with the Sixers in as much as there was already a plan for two. As a third he was free to fill the gaps but by then Butler had worked for eight seasons to make work what he was comfortable with, and in Philly, there just wasn’t enough of it for him. His persona has distilled along the way and he’s leaned into it with verve, but for the only true thing that’s hounded him throughout it all to be the perception of high standards, there needed to have been something consistently backing it all up. For Butler, that bedrock has always been work.
“He’s a throwback,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Butler after Game 3, “It’s about how he impacts winning, how he impacts your team, your locker room, your culture, your franchise. He does that in a remarkable way.”
The Heat weren’t tailor made for Butler but it feels a damn near perfect fit. Still, like anything that looks destined, the legwork was a marathon. Butler fit so well into an already formed team because he’d familiarized himself with so many roles across stylistically different groups that grew increasingly ruptured. He’s been the hands-on, keyed up rookie so has no trouble with the intensity of Herro and Robinson. He’s played the mercenary so he doesn’t diminish the singular role of Crowder and he’s also seen a team as its premature veteran, a role he did not relish, and respects Goran Dragic, Andre Iguodala and Udonis Haslem all the more for holding. For the Heat, all they ever wanted was for Butler to be himself, something he’d long wanted but potentially never expected to get. That it took him a season to settle into it is not strange, it’s only strange it took this long for a team to want all of him, singularly, in this way.
That he has the stage now, its lights and keen attention, is a catalyst of timing, luck and opportunity. No one understands the rarity of this convergence better than Butler, who has seen this end as what he wanted from so many different vantage points. It’s why he can be calculating with his career and still turn its tensest moments of a high stakes game into collisions he laughs off while flat on the ground and offer winking volleys, like telling LeBron James that he’s the one in trouble with a minute thirteen left to go and nothing the Lakers could do about it.
The day after gaining one on the Lakers, Butler had just finished explaining with a smirk the relative speed of his rest and recovery given that Spoelstra likes to remind him in the middle of games that he’s not tired when, shifting back in his chair and into second person, he said, “These guys need you,” the smile that was playing across his face for ten minutes finally spread, “they see you. That’s how they’re gonna be.”
Whatever happens down the last stretch of these Finals, this prolonged, almost existential season, one of the brightest points has been Butler. Like seeing spots after glimpsing at the sun, he’s leaving his mark by playing a singular, starring role on a team that asked him to do it. It isn’t that Butler is only now being seen, it’s that there’s no one who isn’t watching, who wants to tear their eyes away.