Until Sunday’s Game 3 of the NBA final, Jimmy Butler was probably most famous for “the practice.”
Everybody in the NBA practises, but when you put Butler’s name in front of the word, people know what you’re talking about.
The practice in question happened in October, 2018. Having been a frustrated star in Chicago, Butler had become a frustrated star in Minnesota. During the summer, he demanded a trade. The Timberwolves were not inclined to grant him one. So Butler decided to take the preseason off.
When it became clear that a one-man strike wasn’t going to get him what he wanted, Butler returned to practice.
That practice is a little like the Sex Pistols' first gig. Only a couple of dozen people were there, but everyone with any small connection to it now claims to know exactly what went down.
According to the best reports, Butler refused to scrimmage on the starters' squad. Instead, he took every scrub and towel boy in attendance and formed his own team. Then he proceeded to light up the regulars.
Every time he’d torched one of the Wolves young stars, Butler apparently looked over at the team’s management – all of whom were sitting courtside – and profanely brought that to their attention.
“I have a for-real problem with authority,” Butler said later.
As soon as practice ended, Butler left the gym. A few weeks after that, Minnesota traded him to Philadelphia.
The yarn is so compelling because, unlike every single other thing that happens in sports these days, there is no video of it. It’s a fish story. A lack of hard evidence allows it to grow in the re-telling.
Butler has spent years correcting the record – no, he didn’t score a bajillion points; no, he didn’t curse out his teammates; no, there were no actual towel boys involved – but no one wants to hear it. The tale is too good to let it be ruined by the truth.
In the end, Butler got exactly what he wanted and, as often happens in such circumstances, it didn’t turn out so well. Everywhere Butler went, he was individually fantastic. But every team he joined turned out to be a good idea gone wrong.
Butler was tagged as a fascinating malcontent who lacked the “it” factor. He could score buckets. He just couldn’t add turn all those buckets into anything that mattered.
At the outset of 2019-20, Butler was on his fourth team – a preposterous number for a player of his age (31) and talent.
Everyone knew the drill by now – Butler would be great in Miami; Miami would not be so great with Butler. Pre-season, Vegas had the Heat at 60-to-1 to win the title.
The smart money found its way to proven commodities in Los Angeles.
There are a bunch of reasons people liked the Lakers more than Miami, but you could boil it down to the difference between the teams' big stars. LeBron James is a winner. Jimmy Butler is a loser.
When a major talent fails to win anything in his career, they will say of him that he was “the greatest player not to win.” Which is a bit like saying he was the shortest man not to be tall.
It’s gone out of fashion to point this out, but greatness – not goodness, not competence, not decency – is a function of trophies. Without them, you are not great. You are very good.
There’s a reason people talk about Kevin Lowe and Glenn Anderson more than they do about Marcel Dionne. Dionne was miles better than either of them, but he didn’t win anything.
Most guys end up accepting this reality mid-career. Near the end, a few begin title-chasing – taking pay cuts to become fringe members of promising teams.
It rarely occurs to them to do this in their primes, when they can have a real say in the outcome. By the time they figure that out, it’s too late to change their own fate. They have to trust to luck and better, younger players.
Butler could have done this. It’s not like he needs the money. He could’ve tucked himself in behind a bigger star and become that man’s Scottie Pippen. But he decided to bet on himself again, even after rolling a 7 so many times before.
Miami were a surprise in the bubble playoffs, but their upward trend was violently reversed once they met the Lakers in the final.
Miami didn’t just lose the first game. They had their battleship sunk. Two of their biggest stars were injured. The Heat were wiped out, leaving Butler as the last bold-face name standing.
They looked just as bad in Game 2. People began talking about the NBA season in the past tense.
But in Game 3, Butler became the player he’d spent years telling people he could be. His domination went beyond stats. He had one of those games that reduced his opponents to guessing, and almost always guessing wrong.
Near the end, he taunted the Lakers as he walked off during a timeout: “You’re in trouble.” He repeated the line to his teammates: “They in trouble.”
The game sounds loud on television because artificial crowd noise has been laid over the broadcast. But it’s quiet on the court. Butler was functionally screaming in his opponents' faces.
Nobody does this sort of thing to James and gets away with it. For one night at least, Butler did.
James and the other Lakers stars deserted the bench before the final seconds had ticked off the clock. The NBA’s chairman of the board has rarely looked so out of sorts.
It was a performance for the ages. But the odds of repeating it three times against a team that features James and Anthony Davis can’t be good. If Butler and the Heat don’t manage it, Game 3 becomes a cautionary tale. Be careful not to poke the wrong bear.
But maybe, after all his talking, Butler can do what so few pros end up managing. Maybe he can write his own story, in his own way. If so, I’d read the hell out of that.