Butler had career highs of 35 points and seven assists as the Miami Heat roared back from an early 18-point deficit for a 111-84 victory over the Timberwolves that snapped a three-game slide.
The seventh overall pick in the 2002 draft, Butler appears to be the forgotten man in Rookie of the Year consideration. Many feel it is a two-man race between Houston center Yao Ming and Phoenix forward Amare Stoudemire, even though Butler’s 15.2 points per game leads all rookies.
“There’s no doubt he’s a legitimate candidate,” Heat coach Pat Riley said. “I think he should garner great attention and respect. The reality is that we’re not on national television and a lot of people don’t see him. We’re not a team that politics like crazy. We have people working behind the scenes, and his numbers are as good as anyone else’s. If he plays the last nine games like he’s playing now, he does deserve to be voted Rookie of the Year.”
“I ain’t gonna say nothin’,” Butler said. “I’m just going to let my game speak for myself. I’m going to continue to go out there and play hard, try and be the most consistent rookie out there, try to do whatever it takes to make my team win, and whatever happens, happens.”
If the Timberwolves needed any convincing, Butler provided it. Repeatedly getting out in the open court, he made 15-of-22 shots and added four steals, sparking a pair of second-half surges that turned the game into a rout.
“Brian Grant grabbed me by the neck in the huddle,” Butler said. “He was like, ‘Man, we’re going to run with you. We’re feeding off you. Make plays. Be solid. Make good decisions.’ That’s what I was trying to do.”
“His game is to slash and make plays and tonight, I think he did it better than he’s done it all year,” Grant said.
Miami appeared to be headed for its 12th loss in 14 games as it fell behind, 37-19, early in the second quarter. But reserves Eddie House and Mike James helped Butler dramatically turn things around over the final three quarters.
The Heat shot a season-high 62 percent (46-of-74) from the field, the highest mark allowed by the Timberwolves in their 14-year history. House scored a season-high 18 points and James added 15 for Miami, which had seven players in double figures.
Kevin Garnett scored a quiet 17 points for Minnesota (46-28), which could have clinched its seventh straight playoff berth with a win. Instead, the Wolves looked like they were on vacation in Florida, losing games on consecutive nights.
“If you come in today and analyzed both teams, you would never guess that our team is the one going to the playoffs,” Minnesota coach Flip Saunders said. “This was one the worst games of the season, based upon having control of the game in the first quarter and based upon how it ended up.”
Minnesota had beaten Miami four days ago and it looked like more of the same as Anthony Peeler scored 10 points in the first quarter, helping build a 35-19 bulge. Garnett’s basket opened the second period and gave the Wolves their largest lead.
“It was an absolute explosion from the standpoint of getting frustrated again,” Riley said. “They hit everything in the first quarter and they really sort of sapped us. We had eight or nine turnovers in the first quarter, and then it all started to come together.”
“In that first quarter, we kind of looked around and said, ‘Are we going to continue to do this? Are we going to continue to get beat like this?’” Grant said. “I think a few guys just went on the court and just started really stepping up.”
Riley went to a zone defense, which eventually confounded Minnesota. After a basket by rookie Mike Wilks gave the Wolves a 45-32 lead with 5:25 left in the first half, James scored seven points in a 16-7 surge that cut the deficit to four points at halftime.
“I thought what happened was a dangerous thing,” Saunders said. “We played this team recently and we had beat them. In this game, we were up by a lot of points in the first quarter. We then went to our bench and stopped moving the ball. We became selfish and just stopped scoring.”
Butler scored six points in a 13-4 run that ended the third quarter and gave the Heat a 76-65 lead. He had another hoop in a 9-2 burst that opened the final period and made it 85-67 with 8:23 remaining.
“(To come back) does a lot for your confidence, especially against a team like Minnesota,” Butler said. “They’ve got an MVP candidate on their team, one of the most valuable players in the league, and to come back on a team like that, it really does a lot.”
After a basket by Minnesota’s Marc Jackson, House made a 3-pointer and Butler had a steal and dunk, a spinning layup and a reverse layup before another basket by House made it 96-69 with 8:05 remaining.
“It surprised me to see how good of a transition team we were,” Grant said. “We worked the zone better then we have had all year. Everyone was talking. It was a fun game. We haven’t had this kind of fun all year.”
Vladimir Stepania scored 12 points, Grant added 11 and eight rebounds and Malik Allen and Anthony Carter scored 10 apiece for the Heat, who held a 37-30 advantage on the glass. Carter had 11 of Miami’s 30 assists.
Peeler scored 16 points and Kendall Gill added 13 for Minnesota, which shot 42 percent (35-of-83). The Wolves had won the last four meetings between the teams.