The individual grudge match for which NBA fans have been waiting … and waiting … and waiting … finally is here.
Is the bubble down in Walt Disney World big enough for both Jimmy Butler and T.J. Warren?
When Butler and Warren first tangled in January -- with some rather unseemly extracurriculars in the third quarter of the Miami-Indiana game -- the scheduled rematch was months away (March 20 and then again on April 7).
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, the two combatants and their teams finally are meeting seven months after their initial histrionics. The Pacers face the Heat Monday night at the VISA Athletic Center on the Walt Disney Resort campus (8 ET, NBA League Pass) and again on Friday (time and location TBD).
If it feels as if the sports world got Ali-Frazier II more swiftly than we’ve gotten the Butler-Warren rematch, that’s one more thing to blame on the pandemic.
For his part, Warren sounds as if he moved on from the sideshow back in the winter.
“I have no ... for me, I don’t really get into the back-and-forth,” he told NBA.com Sunday. “Once I leave the court, it’s over with me. But on the court, I’m gonna compete in all ways.
“Basketball is basketball. That’s nothing new, guys getting into it, going back and forth. That’s part of the game.”
For those who do not recall the skirmish, Warren was guarding Butler in the third quarter as Miami led 79-56. When Butler drove past him toward the hoop, Warren grabbed the Miami player’s left arm and spun him around. Butler took umbrage, balling up his fists, and the two bumped chests and heads.
Tweeeeet! Double technicals.
Of course it didn’t end there. When play resumed, Butler got the ball, posted up Warren, then drove a shoulder into him, knocking Warren backwards. Butler knew he had earned the offensive foul -- he immediately flipped the ball behind him to the baseline as he walked downcourt. But Warren trailed right behind, clapping his hands behind Butler’s head.
Tweeeeet! Second tech on Warren and he was ejected.
From there, it was WWE. Nasty words from 30 or 40 feet apart. Butler pantomiming kisses in Warren’s direction, then Warren flipping an upraised finger back before he exited.
Warren got fined $25,000 by the NBA for his part, including the obscene gesture. Butler got whacked $35,000 for taking to social media to keep the bad blood flowing.
The NBA has a history of individual feuds, many of them the result of defensive assignments gone physical or, before or after game, gone verbal. Now, add gone social media.
We’re not talking about mere rivalries, mind you. Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird was too elite and too classy, as much as each burned to beat the other. Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell was entirely competition, with an occasional wink between the good friends off the court.
Based on the first bout, this Butler-Warren thing features more friction, chafing and more actual disdain. That makes it more like Michael Jordan vs. Isiah Thomas. Dennis Rodman vs. Bird or Karl Malone. Bill Laimbeer vs. the Celtics’ frontline during his career.
Kevin Garnett vs. Tim Duncan was a Cold War on hardwood whenever they went head-to-head, Garnett glowering and grinding his molars while Duncan usually looked offended by that level of bile. Gary Payton seemed to take personally John Stockton’s excellence when the two Hall of Famers met. Hakeem Olajuwon worked up a big case of dislike for David Robinson after Robinson beat him out in 1995 MVP voting, and dominated the Spurs center in the ’95 West finals.
Kobe Bryant had to dismiss a series of alleged and sometimes self-proclaimed “Kobe-stoppers,” including Raja Bell, Bruce Bowen, Matt Barnes and Ruben Patterson. Of Bell, who spoke loudly to the media of their battles, Bryant famously said: “I don't know this guy. I might have said one word to this guy. I don't know this kid.”
More recently, we’ve had LeBron James vs. DeShawn Stevenson and LeBron vs. Lance Stephenson. Russell Westbrook vs. Patrick Beverley. In the last few days, Beverley and Paul George vs. Damian Lillard.
And now, potentially playing out twice in five days, Butler vs. Warren.
Both players, coincidentally, have been bothered lately by sore right feet. Butler is expected to play Monday after missing three games. Warren has pushed through his injury, averaging 38 minutes in the Pacers’ 4-1 restart.
Bigger than that, of course, he has arguably been the “bubble MVP” with some eye-popping performances. The sixth-year forward from NC State has averaged 34.8 points, including his 53-point effort against Philadelphia on Aug. 1. He has averaged 6.6 rebounds, 2.4 asissts, 1.6 steals and 1.4 blocks in the restart while shooting 60.5% (and 55.6% on 3-pointers).
Some of what Butler said after the game in Indy -- “He’s not even in my league” -- no longer applies. Other comments – “He’s soft ... he’s trash ... I can guard him, he can’t guard me” -- might get adjudicated more fully this week.
Butler wasn’t made available to Miami media Sunday to discuss Warren or the looming games. But he has been known to thrive from tension and confrontations in his career, sometimes even with teammates in Chicago, Minnesota and Philadelphia.
Asked if that ever drove him, though, Warren told NBA.com: “Not at all. You’ll go crazy if you’re trying to figure out why certain people feel the way they do about you. You can’t be too concerned with other people’s opinions. Only you know how much work you put into the game and how much you believe in yourself. As long as you have that, you’ll be fine.”
A little feistiness feeding into anticipation for team or individual matchups can be a good thing. Warren understands that sometimes pro sports these days come off as vast Millionaires Clubs, with more fraternity than hostility with opponents.
“Different guys handle different situations differently,” he said. “I know the fans and the media are gonna have fun with it. It’s entertainment for them. But for me, I’m just all basketball. I don’t really feed into all that stuff.”
At the very least, two games between Miami and Indiana might wind up setting up as many as seven more in the coming weeks. As a potential series between No. 4 and No. 5 in the East, there’s a pre-playoff feel layered onto the Butler-Warren angle.
Warren doesn’t know if coaches Nate McMillan or Erik Spoelstra plans to hold something back before the games really count. He’s just eager for next week to get here.
“This is going to be my first playoff, so I’m really excited,” he said. “To add the experience of being in the playoffs. I hear a lot of stories about how much preparation it takes, and how it’s mentally and physically tougher. It’s good to get advice -- you can hear stories all the time -- but until you really experience it, that’s the big thing.”
Set the over/unders soon for head-to-head points, fouls, technical, gestures and trash-talk word counts. This matchup has a chance to join some chippy NBA lore.
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