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Jimmy Butler’s star burns brightest when the stakes are their highest in the NBA Playoffs

Jimmy Butler finds comfort tension. He’s always at his best in the NBA Playoffs.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Butler has always needed a certain amount of tension to be at his best, and he found it in Game 1 of the 2022 Eastern Conference Finals. Butler’s Miami Heat were given an unexpected gift pregame when it was announced both Marcus Smart (sprained foot) and Al Horford (COVID) were set to miss the opener for Boston. With that opportunity came a heightened pressure.

The Heat were the underdog coming into the series despite having home court advantage, and they couldn’t afford to drop Game 1 in Miami with the Celtics down two starters. Yet through the game’s opening half, Boston was in complete control, with Jayson Tatum’s explosive scoring outburst pacing the Celtics to an eight-point halftime lead. Given the circumstances, it was easy to give Boston the early coronation so many already thought they were destined for as the teams headed into the locker room.

When they came out for the second half, Butler showed he had other ideas.

The Heat finished off a 118-107 win in Game 1 behind an incredible effort from Butler. The veteran wing finished with 41 points, nine rebounds, five assists, four steals, and three blocks — a line that has never been seen in NBA playoffs history. He did it in 41 minutes while being a game-high +25 on the night.

It felt like Butler swung the game himself during Miami’s monstrous third quarter with back-to-back ‘pick six’-style steals and finishes. It was the sort of two-way playoffs masterpiece Butler should be known for at this point.

This was Butler’s third 40+ point scoring performance of these playoffs after not scoring 40 or more once during the regular season. In fact, all five of the 40+ point games Butler has had with the Heat have come in the postseason. When the lights are the brightest and the stakes are the highest, Butler has a singular ability to will his team to victory.

Butler doesn’t look anything like a traditional NBA superstar. If you’re looking for that, go no further than the stud lined up across from him in this series — Jayson Tatum. Tatum was already considered a future star from early in his high school career. After he led USA Basketball to another gold medal in a youth competition in 2015, I wrote that Tatum had the basketball world in the palm of his hand a year before he would set off for Duke. Tatum had the size, the shooting, the handle, the agility, and the athleticism that separates NBA stars from their peers all by the time he got his drivers license. He was given the role of ‘star’ on every team he ever played for because his talent demanded it. Butler never had that luxury.

After an upbringing fit for a sappy Hollywood movie, Butler couldn’t land a scholarship out of high school. After one season of JUCO ball in his native Texas, Butler was still considered just a two-star college recruit, but Marquette coach Buzz Williams saw enough to offer him a scholarship. In college, Butler made a name for himself as a tough, defensive-minded wing. The Chicago Bulls saw enough in him to take him No. 30 overall in the 2012 NBA Draft. At the time, it would thought that the Butler pick would be a hit if he could eventually take Ronnie Brewer’s spot in the rotation as a backup wing.

Butler didn’t break into the Bulls’ rotation until his second season with the team, and once he did, he almost never left the floor. Head coach Tom Thibodeau played Butler 46 or more minutes six times in seven games during his first playoff run in 2013, with Butler acting as the team’s go-to wing stopper against both Joe Johnson and LeBron James. No one in the NBA played more than Butler the next season as he averaged 38.7 minutes per night. At that point, Butler was still a tertiary offensive option who averaged just over 13 points per game, mostly on cuts, putbacks, and other off-ball opportunities.

The Bulls offered Butler a contract extension after the season, but it wasn’t the money he was looking for. Instead, Butler bet on himself to get a better deal the next summer. All he did was turn in the first All-Star season of his career in 2014-2015 and earn a max contract from Chicago. He’s been one of the best players in the league ever since, but Butler’s mentality never stopped being the same as the JUCO player grinding for a DI scholarship or the backup wing stopper who just wanted to earn regular minutes after never playing as a rookie.

As Butler’s star ascended, so too did his reputation as being difficult to work with. He turned himself into an on-ball guard by making huge offseason improvements as a ball handler and passer, but there were reports of tension between Butler and incumbent star Derrick Rose. By the time Rose was traded, Chicago’s front office seemed to resent Butler for earning a bigger contract than they anticipated, and they immediately started fretting his next, more lucrative deal.

Butler clashed with Chicago’s Thibodeau replacement, Fred Hoiberg, who wanted an offense with more pace and more threes. It sounded good on paper, but it didn’t fit with the talents of his best player. Butler told the Bulls it was him or Hoiberg. They chose Hoiberg. Butler wasn’t going to forget it.

“I probably went about a lot of things the wrong way,” Butler said. ”People don’t work as hard as I do and don’t expect the same things out of the game that I do. And that’s my fault and I’ve learned from that. I said from the beginning — it was either gonna me or the Fred Hoiberg route. And rightfully so, they took Fred. Good for them. I’ve got that game marked on my calendar: Feb. 9 baby, I’m back.”

Butler was traded to the Timberwolves with two years left on a contract that was way below market value because Bulls front office tandem John Paxson and Gar Forman didn’t think he’d be worth his next deal. In his final year with the team, the Bulls only earned the No. 8 seed in the East despite Butler grabbing All-NBA honors. To Chicago’s brain trust, this meant Butler wasn’t good enough to be the best player on a contender. In reality, every move the Bulls made around Butler was a disaster, and without him they would have been one of the league’s worst teams. In the four years after trading him, Chicago lost the most games in the NBA.

Butler landed in Minnesota with his former coach Thibodeau, and in their first season together they earned the Timberwolves’ first playoff appearance in 14 years. The next season, the relationship between Butler and the Wolves deteriorated as he started to plan his next contract. You know what happened next: Butler held out of training camp before returning for a day to drop F-bombs on his teammates and executives while taking the third stringers and beating the starters in a scrimmage. Butler was branded as toxic, and traded to Philadelphia weeks later.

Butler should have been the perfect backcourt partner for Joel Embiid in Philly, but the team chose to stick with Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris instead. He eventually signed with Miami in free agency, and in his first season he led the Heat to the NBA Finals inside the bubble by going toe-to-toe with LeBron James. He grew his legend by putting up an instant classic Game 3 performance that saw him post a 40-point triple-double. The Finals produced an image of Butler that became a meme and also serves as an indelible image of his rise into a star.

NBAE via Getty Images

Even as the Heat have again been near or at the top of the Eastern Conference all season, there was another moment of tension when Butler and head coach Erik Spoeltra screamed at each other on the sidelines. Some thought this would be the end of the Heat’s run, and perhaps even Butler in Miami.

Instead, the Heat are 15-6 since the blowup. Butler continues to thrive with tension.

Butler can be grating and too honest for his own good, but he’s rarely been wrong. Hoiberg was eventually fired from the Bulls and finished dead last in the Big Ten this season while coaching the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Butler told Wolves executives “You f---ing need me. You can’t win without me,” and he was right again: Minnesota wasn’t back in the playoffs until this season when they replaced their entire leadership team from Butler’s stay a few years back. When he helped eliminate Embiid, Harris, James Harden, and the rest of the 76ers in the second round of these playoffs, he yelled “Tobias Harris over me?” as he walked through the tunnel.

Butler is at his best when it feels like the goals of an entire organization are hanging in the balance. He reaches a new level when the stakes are at their highest. He is the role player who turned himself into a superstar through sheer willpower, at once both one of the NBA’s great underdog stories and a star who carries himself with a singular belief in his own talent.

The more Butler gets written off, the stronger he gets. Maybe the Celtics will eventually win this series as everyone expects. At this point, though, Jimmy Butler beating the odds shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s the only thing he knows how to do.