It was just the way the Miami Heat wanted it, precisely the way Jimmy Butler envisioned it.
A dogfight in need of the biggest dog in the yard, barking the loudest, biting the hardest.
The Boston Celtics won’t run away and hide from the Heat, and vice-versa — which means every game in this Eastern Conference finals will likely come down to the simplest of strategies: who can get a bucket late and who can make plays in scramble situations that derive from instinct and intellect.
Just put me in charge, Jimmy says.
His two late go-ahead buckets in the last possessions of regulation and overtime to give Miami a 1-0 lead Tuesday night signify all that he’s asked for since becoming Jimmy Butler, superstar, over five years ago. A franchise that would empower him, surround him, put up with his quirks but yet give him the structure he so craves.
The Chicago Bulls didn’t know what to do with him, didn’t believe his talent was worth paying and building around.
The Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers didn’t want to hear him when he put up that mirror, one of a funhouse variety to those franchises.
But the Miami Heat?
He didn’t need the mirror, he saw in them what he wanted to be, and how he hoped things would line up for him to be on a contender regardless of the circumstances. Three wins away from reaching a summit not many believed this combination could achieve, this Jimmy Butler, these Miami Heat.
Make no mistake, this is Pat Riley’s franchise, and soon to be Erik Spoelstra’s. The connective tissue is obvious between the two, and it’s echoed from the top down.
But on the floor, Butler is in charge, a leader in ways that more talented superstars aren’t by force of personality. When Kawhi Leonard and Paul George play well, it’s a great thing for the Los Angeles Clippers, but there’s no emotional inspiration.
Butler once asked an impartial observer if he were better than those two, more heralded, celebrated and talented players. And he made it a point to want to be in that class, even if most franchises would consider those two more ready to be the face of a franchise — but he’s more determined to get it, to dig it out from wherever the game is.
“You gotta have a guy willing to put himself out there [emotionally]. We were fortunate,” Spoelstra said of Butler. “I don’t know, that’s his makeup. The moment’s not too big. He’s vulnerable enough to put himself out there.”
You won’t catch Butler being vulnerable in the traditional way. He’s much too proud, too hardened to behave that way outwardly. But when he passes up good shots for better shots, when he controls tempo without playing point guard, when he so pointedly tells everyone within earshot that his guys can play, he’s creating something special.
“I think my confidence in my guys grows every single second,” Butler said. “They’re not scared of any team. I have all the faith in these guys.”
And even though he won’t say it, he’s thankful for it. As tough as he is, he’s a pleaser at heart. Butler wants you to follow him, but he wants you to believe in him more than anything.
His tough love is doused with plenty of love.
“I do what I’m told to do. You take what the game gives you,” Butler said. “If I don’t shoot that or I pass it, my teammates will make it. It’s me tonight, the next time it’ll be Goran or Bam or Jae.”
The Heat refuse to be pushovers not because of Butler, so he doesn’t have to drag the unlikely bunch along. It’s in their DNA, so there’s no panic when the more talented Celtics hit them with haymakers twice to go up double-digits.
“Let’s be real. We got down because they were playing great,” Spoelstra said. “They were putting it to us. They’re a really good defensive team.
“We had some grit there, going down 12, staying with it.”
Staying with it means Butler doesn’t have to force shots, that confidence he’s injected in Tyler Herro and Goran Dragic’s existing confidence can manifest itself. And when they’re right on the doorstep, they can turn to Butler and he can deliver.
"My teammates have the most faith in me to make a basket or make the right pass out of that,” Butler said. "I think I’m calm because I know my role. Of course Spo is barking at me to make a play. We do a great job of knowing where the ball has to go.”
He’s been where Bam Adebayo was, a defensive player who was still growing into his pro game, with so much quiet potential. So when the ball went to Jayson Tatum, and Tatum aired toward the rim and Adebayo sent it back to save the game, it confirmed all the things Butler believes: That Adebayo is the future, and that the Heat are tougher than you when it matters most.
“It was a huge play. [Magic] knows,” said Butler when told of Magic Johnson’s tweet about the block being the best defensive play in the history of the game. “That’s what it takes to win championships. I would agree with him. What Bam did to save the game, that is a really great play.”
It won’t be an easy series. The Celtics are full of talented players who can get rugged and will win their share of battles. Tatum and Jaylen Brown will challenge Butler, even though he got the better of them on the opening night.
But Game 1 is merely the courting period of what appears to be a very long dance … into the mud.
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