2020 Playoffs | East Semifinals: (1) Bucks vs. (5) Heat

Jimmy Butler's bet on Miami Heat pays off

All-Star finds home where toughness, commitment has given him deepest playoff run of his career

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

ORLANDO, Fla. — Two months ago his words sounded crazy to anyone outside of the Miami Heat ecosystem.

Jimmy Butler was just being, well … Jimmy Butler, when he talked about the Miami Heat’s mission in the NBA bubble.

He told anyone willing to listen that they were coming north to win it all, not just to deliver a good showing and exit this unprecedented situation with any moral victories.

That’s not the Heat way. Who cares that the roster didn’t scream championship, with its mix of seasoned veterans and promising youngsters. Butler saw something in the Heat organization, and the building blocks of this team in particular, when he spurned other recruiting pitches last summer and zeroed in on the hard-hat culture of the championship organization that team president Pat Riley built and coach Erik Spoelstra commands.

So they’re halfway to a fourth title now, and halfway to Butler’s stated goal, with Tuesday’s 103-94 win over the No. 1 overall seed Milwaukee Bucks in Game 5 at HP FieldHouse.

Butler’s not surprised things have come together so quickly.

“Not at all,” said Butler, who led a balanced effort with 17 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. “We’re a close group, we like being around one another. We’re constantly talking about how we can make each other better. What we see out there on the floor, we’re legit in it to win it. We don’t care about stats, we don’t care about fame. We don’t care about none of that. All that we all care about is winning a championship. And I’m telling you, that’s why we’re playing the style of basketball we’re playing right now.”

The Bucks were missing their MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose sprained right ankle kept him out of what turned out to be the final game for the team with the best regular season record in the league in each of the past two seasons.

But the Heat had theirs in Butler, who has led the franchise to its first conference finals since 2014. Back then, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were finishing up a wild run of four straight trips to The Finals, including championships in 2012 and 2013.

And he doesn’t think this team has come close to playing its best yet.

“I don’t think so,” Butler said. “I don’t think we’ve played a full 48-minute game yet. And that’s what’s promising, is that if we do lock in and play from start to finish the way that we’re capable of, the way we’re supposed to, I think the game will be a lot easier. It’s yet to happen, but we got to have it happen in the next round.”

Those “Heatles” title teams rode the wave of theirsuperstar trio to the top of the NBA mountain. This Butler-led Heat team is in this position, a league-best 8-1 in the postseason, because their superstar trusted the Heat’s culture and the process.

Butler also trusted his teammates. That includes veterans like Goran Dragic and Kelly Olynyk, who were already in Miami and played big minutes in the close out of the Bucks, and trade-deadline additions Jae Crowder and three-time champion Andre Iguodala, both of whom delivered handsomely on all that experience Tuesday. They also got important contributions from youngsters Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro.

Spoelstra knows how tough it is to get here and how special it is. That was particularly true with a team that’s endured its first season together amidst the coronavirus pandemic, the four-month season layoff and restart and the rigors of an unprecedented playoffs in this bubble.

“It’s not easy to get to the conference finals and our organization knows that,” Spoelstra said. “We’ve been trying desperately to get back to the conference finals. That’s not our ultimate goal, we get it. But you could still acknowledge the journey, how hard it is to get to this point. That is why we brought Jimmy Butler here, that is why we put this team together with the veterans, adding Andre and Jae, building around Goran and Bam and adding to the young core.

“So it’s not easy to get to the conference finals, otherwise every team would be doing it. And we’ve been at this for 25 years under the Riley-[Heat owner Mickey] Arison leadership. We’ve tried every single year just to get to this level and it just shows you how competitive this league is. It doesn’t happen every year and we don’t take it for granted. We’re grateful for the opportunity we’ve had.”

What looked like a motley crew to the outside world when training camp began was the perfect situation to Butler after stops in Minnesota and Philadelphia the past two season did not agree with his sensibilities about the game.

Butler was searching for a like-minded group of players, ones who compete with a chip on their shoulder, ones who were maybe overlooked, counted out or disregarded. He was looking for players like, well … Jimmy Butler.

He was searching for guys like Crowder (16 points in Game 5) and Adebayo (13), Dragic (17) and Herro (14 off the bench, with several huge baskets down the stretch). Guys young and old(er) who would chase greatness the way he would. And they did, running down the Bucks after falling behind by 13 points in the first quarter with a furious 30-9 rally of their own to regain control.

“I just came in with a killer mindset,” Herro said. “I wanted to leave everything on the floor for my coaches and teammates. This was one game we needed, we needed one game to move to the next round and I just tried to bring everything I could and leave it out there on the floor. It was ugly but we got the win and that’s all that mattered.”

So no, Butler’s not surprised that his team is still playing. The Heat will celebrate this accomplishment — at least for a night or two per Spoelstra — before locking in on the conference finals.

“It felt good at the end to obviously win it,” Herro said. “We’re going to enjoy this tonight and maybe tomorrow a little bit. But then we’ll get back to work, because we’ve still got some unfinished business.”

We don’t care about stats, we don’t care about fame. We don’t care about none of that. All that we all care about is winning a championship.”

Heat star Jimmy Butler

They’re off to the best start for a team seeded fifth or lower since the playoffs were expanded in 1984. That’s news that might even surprise Butler, who is finally getting his first taste of the conference finals.

In fact, he probably won’t care. Because in his eyes, the Heat are still only halfway to the ultimate goal.

“This means a lot,” Butler said. “But that’s not my goal, that’s not my guys’ goal, that’s not the organization’s goal. We want to win it. We want a championship. And that’s what we’re focused on. These next eight [wins] are going to be much harder than the previous eight. We know that. But we’re ready for it.”

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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