Earlier this month, FS1’s Nick Wright debuted a bit called the Superstar Club. I don’t usually endorse debate show takes, but this was a solid metaphor. Jimmy Butler was depicted standing in line, waiting for entry. In this year’s Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics, he nearly cemented his legacy, scoring 82 points in 94 minutes in the final two must-win contests. Unfortunately, Jimmy Buckets got to the front door, tried to order a VIP table, and had his superstar card declined. Down two in the final 17 seconds, Butler raced down the floor, turned down the one-on-one gladiator showdown in the paint with 35-year-old Al Horford, rose up from behind the arc, and rattled it off the edge of the rim.
You could almost hear rickety basketball fans muttering, “Steph Curry ruined basketball” at the moment a 23 percent 3-point shooter (in the regular season) opted for a risky game-winning triple in the waning seconds of Game 7. Between the regular season and postseason, Jimmy Buckets has made 18 pull-up shots from downtown at a 26 percent clip. An and-1 situation was as likely in that situation as a pull-up 3. For Butler, that was a bad basketball play.
Butler isn’t Steph Curry or Harden. He doesn’t have Zach Lavine’s bounce. His rugged, blue collar offensive repertoire isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as his perimeter peers. He’s as likely to operate out of the mid-post and back you down or face you up and score as he is to fling a rainbow 3-pointer through the cylinder. It’s not a knock on him, but that uniqueness is part of Butler’s allure and his hard knocks journey.
Butler’s antediluvian game is the equivalent of nonperishable goods in a survivalist’s bunker. They’re a disservice to your taste buds, but useful in emergencies and can be consumed in any era. Come playoff time, he’s shown he can almost will a team devoid of an all-world talent to the promised land. Heat Culture has been epitomized by Butler’s bravado and edge for the past three seasons.
Butler went for the jugular in the final 20 seconds and tried to make the play that could have planted him in a more prestigious place in the NBA hierarchy. But he made the wrong one. Three years ago, Butler was in the exact same situation in Game 7 against the Toronto Raptors. Butler drove past Serge Ibaka and layed it in to tie the game at 90 with 4.2 seconds remaining. Obviously, Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer beater dumped Butler’s driving layup to the forgotten bin of hoops history, but the situations are analogous.
The 2022 Heat revolved around his pugnacious energy. As we’ve seen countless times in his career, his combative nature can bite back. He was Oppenheimer on his way out of Minnesota, leaving a crater behind that took years for the franchise to climb out of. Philly definitely made the wrong choice choosing Ben Simmons over Butler, but his acrimony with Brett Brown and the front office led to them cutting ties.
He’s basically living out Patrick Ewing’s career as a future Hall of Famer who couldn’t get over the hump or garner the same reverence as his peers Shaq, David Robinson, and Hakeem Olajuwon. Butler is just playing in a more perimeter-oriented era. Ewing and Butler don’t possess a scoring title, an MVP, a Defensive Player of the Year honor, or a championship ring. Butler’s career is beginning to play out identically.
Twenty-seven years ago, Ewing rimmed out a layup against Indiana in Game 7 of the 1995 NBA Playoffs. Throughout the 90s, Ewing was just one play short of postseason glory. Hell, he was even on the wrong end of two of the most iconic March Madness Finals in college hoops history at Georgetown, losing to Michael Jordan’s first game-winner in 1982 and against the Cinderella Villanova Wildcats in ‘85.
In three consecutive postseasons, Butler has been defeated by the eventual NBA champions. In 2019, Leonard made one more play than Butler in Game 7. In 2020, Butler led the Heat to the Finals in his inaugural season with Miami where they were defeated by Los Angeles in The Bubble. Last year, the Heat were spanked by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round.
If Boston defeats Golden State, Butler will be left to lament what could have been. Being an NBA superstar is a heavy burden and high bar to reach. No one can ever question Butler’s heart, but it got in the way of making the heady play. Butler will be back next season with another degree of respect from anyone who watched him gut it out throughout the postseason, but history remembers champions.