Why Sam Smith is rooting for Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat

In an era of basketball where the three-point shot is heavily emphasized, Butler dominated Game 3 of the NBA Finals without attempting a single one.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later

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Did Jimmy Butler just save the NBA?

Butler may not even have saved the Miami Heat, who now trail the Lakers 2-1 in the NBA Finals with Game 4 Tuesday.

Or saved the rest of us from another LeBron's-the-greatest/No-Michael's-the-greatest debate if the Lakers, as expected, win the championship and James with a third different franchise gets his fourth championship at 35. And thus in his 17th season leads a team to a title, an unprecedented span for being the team's dominant player.

But the former Bull with his historic Finals 40-point triple double performance Sunday against LeBron and the Lakers perhaps did something even more significant. Butler's dominant game, in which he basically outproduced James and Anthony Davis combined, came without Butler even attempting one three-point shot. Jimmy Butler scored 40 points and saved his team in this high scoring NBA era without making or taking a three pointer. Imagine that.

Prima facie evidence the way the game was played for a century may not be wrong? A road map to rediscovering basketball?

You know, when players closest to the basket shot the ball, when players experienced contact and were able to score when the clock wasn't running. When players didn't believe it was necessary to throw the ball farther from the basket to get bonus points.

Which often has become the modern strategy of the game.

It's been popularized, in part, because of the success of the Golden State Warriors during a time when the team happened to have two and perhaps three of the greatest shooters in NBA history.

Sure, we can do that, too.

A petri dish of shooters became a most unusual culture.

Most of sports, if not also life, love, and business, is an exercise in examining what is successful and attempting to duplicate that. Hey, that worked!

Thus many are rooting for the Miami Heat. Sure, they also shoot a lot of long shots. Because, well, they have several players who do that well. But in Butler and to a lesser extent Goran Dragic, players who often play out of the midrange and score extensively from the painted/lane area of the basketball floor and get to the free throw line, the Heat play a game familiar to the roots of basketball. Though this is not just an homage to the game's early era. I also believe most everything generally gets better with time and innovation. But I am having difficultly watching these long stretches of NBA games with nothing but threes shot, no one going to the offensive boards and most everyone running only arc to arc. The three-point arc doesn't particularly bend toward entertaining viewing all the time.

I know I risk dismissal for threatening to keep their ball if they continue to invade my lawn sensibilities.

Which is why I'm also rooting for Miami.

This is the Finals, the biggest games on the grandest stage when the greatest talents are supposed to triumph. Butler did it, at least for one game, without the holy grail three. By stopping the clock, marching to the free throw line, backing defenders in to take advantage of mismatches (seriously, LeBron, you're still switching?) and shooting two-point shots when they are open.

Threes do count more than twos. Despite having been in the New York City public school system I still know that. And while it takes longer to add by two, there is a psychological effect and perhaps a little anxiety when the other guy keeps advancing the scoreboard.

Celebrating the two-point basket also means I get to write this without including a video sequence of a play which is supposed to suggest that player's tendency forever (as if I'd even know how to post that). Or display an excess of arcane statistics I also don't quite understand and can't actually figure out where to find them, anyway.

Jimmy drove to the basket. If he was doubled he passed. If he got the switch he wanted he shot or went to the basket. He created contact to get to the free throw line. Teammates moved around him to create opportunities for passes. It wasn't as theatrical as effective. Miami scored 115 points against three current and former All-Defensive team players. Imagine that.

It's also why this is encouraging for the Bulls.

Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, Arturas Karnisovas, introduces new Head Coach Billy Donovan to the media in an online press conference

Because new coach Billy Donovan hasn't been a member of the Church of the Long Ball.

Donovan has accommodated to his players' strengths, which have often been with mid range shooting and playmaking like last season with Chris Paul and before that Russell Westbrook. It's antithetical to the way the Bulls have played, especially last season when Wendell Carter Jr. looked like he was getting an electrical shock every time he thought about shooting inside the three-point line. Lauri Markkanen, likewise, seemed to safely stay away. We thought Markkanen didn't have the energy, but maybe it was the fear of the electrical energy.

Donovan said in introductory media remarks last week he hews to players' talents. That's encouraging.

A game like Butler had Sunday brings out the inevitable second guess about how the Bulls should have kept him and they'd be in the Finals, too. Though I've mostly only heard that from some media members whose analysis generally involves waiting to see who succeeds and then condemning everyone else for not doing that.

Bulls fans generally have understood.

The Jimmy we're seeing now is not the Jimmy we knew. Similar attitude and lack of playing time restrictions. But Jimmy then was playing for money and recognition, which is what he was supposed to do. After all, players are paid and receive awards for stats. Management measures them at contract time that way. So Jimmy put up 50s. Jimmy was more an isolation scorer then who shot more threes. He averaged almost five threes a game in his brief visit to Minnesota. In his last four Bulls seasons, he averaged 50 percent more threes per game than he did this season with Miami. One season Jimmy refused to dress in the locker room the entire season because he was feuding with various teammates. He was an enigma, a paradox and a heck of a competitor. There was time for a growth spurt.

Jimmy Butler

Believing that Jimmy could do for the Bulls what this Jimmy is doing for Miami is like believing it all would have worked out perfectly if you'd only stayed with your high school boyfriend or girlfriend. People change and grow.

The problem in the NBA is the game changed, and not always so much for the better. I'm always told fans like scoring, which doesn't necessarily explain the appeal of soccer all over the world. Can covering two thirds of the court and repeating long shots be that appealing? Maybe it is. The NBA remains popular. But it still was a delight to see Butler explore the entire court, examine and analyze what his opponent was doing like he was a word processor, involve his peripatetic teammates and take advantage and react to that instead of a fixed formula.

It was becoming the audacity of the bubble. After two games, LeBron and AD were Shaq and Kobe and Kareem and Magic. Then Jimmy turned them into Ced Ceballos and Elden Campbell. Did the bubble morph to a watershed? The mid range game can do some amazing things. Try it sometime. It looks like the Bulls will. Maybe Sunday was the day the NBA took the first unsteady step back to its future.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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