- Nick Friedell is the Chicago Bulls beat reporter for ESPN Chicago. Friedell is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and joined ESPNChicago.com for its launch in April 2009.
Jimmy Butler believes in the Miami Heat’s culture as much as the organization believes in him.
The perfect basketball marriage, one that has only been strengthened in the bubble as the Heat dominate everybody in their path, took another step closer to NBA paradise on Friday night when Butler scored 30 points in a 115-100 Game 3 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Heat have a commanding 3-0 lead in their Eastern Conference semifinals series.
After the win, it was Butler, the present and future king of the proud team, who praised beloved veteran forward Udonis Haslem for giving him the biggest mental assist of the night.
“He literally came to me and said, ‘Do not let us lose this game. Win it,'” Butler said of Haslem’s message. “And he came to me at about eight minutes in the third quarter. It was like: ‘Hit the switch. Turn it on.’ And for him to be in my corner like that, he’s played with some greats, let’s not get that wrong. But for him to have that confidence in me, it goes a long way.”
Never at a loss for confidence, Butler’s own belief has only been strengthened this season after signing with the Heat this summer and watching them engineer the most impressive sustained run in the bubble. Miami is 7-0 in the bubble heading into Game 4 on Sunday afternoon.
Butler continues to say he isn’t surprised by the Heat’s success. After having issues fitting into several organizations over the past few years, Butler has thrived in Miami on a team that sees the basketball world the same way he does. His teammates and coaches have repeatedly praised his leadership and his play throughout the year, but especially since the playoffs began.
“It’s not about his scoring,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said while describing a pass Butler made to Jae Crowder late in the game for a crucial 3-pointer. “I’m sure everybody will look at the 30 points, but he only had three attempts in the first half. He does whatever’s necessary to help your team have a chance to win, and that’s on both ends of the court. So he’ll read the game. He’s not out there trying to score 50, but he knows that when their defense steps up he’s going to have to put the ball in the basket at times.”
The fifth-seeded Heat have beaten the top-seeded Bucks mentally and physically throughout the series. Spoelstra’s group has gotten contributions from up and down the roster, including a 20-point, 16-rebound performance from All-Star big man Bam Adebayo in Friday’s win.
But it was Haslem, the wise voice of the group, who garnered respect after Friday’s win. Spoelstra went as far as to say Haslem was “controlling the huddles,” at times to motivate his teammates to play better.
“UD told Jimmy, ‘You go out there and be the best player on this floor. No matter what happens, you’re going to lead us to this win,'” Leonard said. “And that’s what he’s done. His level of focus, when it comes to the scout, getting guys involved in the offense, his intangibles on the defensive end are just off the charts. There’s no other way to put it other than the fact that Jimmy Butler is a damn good leader. He’s a damn good teammate, and he is one hell of a player. And he is high level impact on both ends.”
Butler’s obsession with winning has motivated his teammates and coaches in the bubble. The relationship that had grown strong during the year appears unbreakable now, with Butler recently praising Heat “godfather” Pat Riley and describing the bond they’ve built over the last year.
“They believe in what I believe in,” Butler said. “And that’s telling the truth, being honest, working hard every single day. And that we can beat anybody. We can compete with anybody. We don’t ever play to lose, ever. We will not do that here. It’s not the Heat way. And everybody here believes in that, man, and so it works.”
Leonard offered high praise for Butler’s ability to lift the rest of his teammates.
“He is the ultimate competitor,” Leonard said. “Everybody wondered, ‘Oh, well is he too competitive? Or is he an a–hole?” No, he’s not. He’s a winner. And he expects the same level of focus, effort, energy, mental focus, from his teammates. And you are seeing him not only do it himself, but he’s bringing the best out of others as well. The entire team.”
Spoelstra, the longtime coach of the group, was asked if there was a moment Friday that symbolized Heat culture the most. After initially saying no, Spoelstra gave an answer that offered another reason as to why the Heat continue to have so much success under the strangest of circumstances.
“We are who we are,” Spoelstra said. “Some years we’re a punch line, some years people say it’s the wrong culture, but who cares? We’re not making apologies for it. Our culture is probably UD screaming at everybody in one of the timeouts. And us liking it.”
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