With little more than a minute remaining in Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Sunday, Jimmy Butler lost LeBron James behind a screen and drove to the hoop. The L.A. Lakers’ Markieff Morris shuffled over to stop him, but the Miami Heat star glided beyond Morris’ reach and scored his 40th point of the night. Lakers head coach Frank Vogel called timeout, and as Butler headed back to the bench, he delivered a forceful message.
The tweet above contains an incorrect transcription of Butler’s comment. He actually said, “You’re in trouble,” directly to LeBron. Butler explained to reporters after the game that the bon mot did not materialize out of thin air: James had said the same thing to him at the end of the first quarter, and Butler was simply returning the volley, with interest.
No matter the quote’s provenance or chronology, Butler telling James that he’s in trouble is rich. Butler’s team is down two games to one and missing key starters Goran Dragic and Bam Adebayo. The Lakers are bigger, healthier, and more experienced. Still, even though we’re living through a news cycle dominated by fantastical tales of poor judgment, I’m hesitant to accuse Butler of tempting fate. He’s earned the benefit of the doubt.
ABC’s Mike Breen hailed Butler’s Game 3 performance as a “masterpiece,” and the 40 point, 11 rebound, 13 assist triple-double really was chiseled from a slab of stubborn marble. Butler repeatedly threw himself at the rim for layups, kick-outs, and to draw contact to get to the free throw line. He is the first player to score 40 points in a Finals game without attempting a single 3-pointer since Shaquille O’Neal did it in 2002. But the 6-foot-7 Butler is not Shaq, and it is not 2002. This was the basketball equivalent of someone digging the Chunnel all by themselves, and completing the project on time and under budget.
Somehow, Butler still had the energy to check LeBron on defense. Had you been scoring it like a boxing match, the Heat star would have come out the clear winner, but Butler won in accordance with normal basketball scoring, too, so let’s just stick with that.
The list of players who can do that to LeBron James is minuscule; the list of guys who’d tell him he’s “in trouble” afterward—and mean it—is even smaller. But Butler has always been a unique case study in NBA stardom.
Growing up in Tomball, Texas, Butler was kicked out of his house by his mother at age 13 and experienced bouts of homelessness. Major NCAA programs ignored him, and he attended a junior college for a year before transferring to Marquette. His game developed slowly and steadily over three seasons in Wisconsin and, come his senior year, Butler was good enough to be a first-round pick (albeit the very last pick of the first round).
Butler barely played during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls, but he made a string of impressive appearances in his second year while filling in for injured forward Luol Deng. In one of those games, a win against the Lakers, Butler held Kobe Bryant to just 16 points. Afterward, his teammates playfully dubbed him the “Kobe Stopper,” a title he immediately rejected. “For one, that is not my nickname,” he said at the time, “And for two, I feel like everywhere he went I was there but also one of my teammates was there, two of my teammates were there.”
That mix of humorous self-assurance and selfless coach-speak stayed with Butler as he ascended into NBA stardom. After leading the Philadelphia 76ers to a Game 2 victory over the Toronto Raptors last year, Philly head coach Brett Brown said, “This was James Butler. That was the adult in the gym.” When a reporter relayed that quote to Butler, he said, “My name isn’t James. It is literally Jimmy.”
His stout defending extends to interviews. Just try and sneak one by him.
The abnormal circumstances of these playoffs have highlighted some of the quirks of Butler’s personality. His approach to the Disney bubble has been more Lord of the Flies than Swiss Family Robinson, and he didn’t exactly jump for joy when the NBA announced that it would allow players to invite loved ones to join them in central Florida. “This is a business trip for me. I’m not messing around,” he said. “Everyone wants to have their family, without a doubt. But we’ve been doing this for this long, what’s another couple of months? It is an individual decision and I respect that decision that my teammates make, but I’m here for business.”
Business is a loaded term here, as Butler had the foresight to bring his French press into the bubble and has opened his own coffee shop, Big Face Coffee. His java comes in three sizes—small, medium, and large—and every cup costs $20, even for his teammates.
Butler deftly toes the line between alpha tough guy and charming bon vivant, though he hasn’t always been able to strike a convincing balance between the two. When a bumbling Chicago Bulls front office figured they couldn’t build a championship competitor around the hard-headed star, they traded him to Minnesota on the night of the 2017 draft. The Timberwolves hoped Butler would whip their young duo of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins into shape, but the plan backfired spectacularly after Butler reportedly decided that his charges were lazy losers. To prove this assessment correct, he teamed up with a few second- and third-stringers and destroyed Minnesota’s starting lineup in a scrimmage for the ages.
“Am I being tough on [Towns], yeah? That’s who I am,” Butler told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. “I’m not the most talented player. Who’s the most talented player on our team? KAT. Who’s the most God-gifted player on our team? Wiggs. … Who plays the hardest? Me. I play hard. I play really hard.” Butler made it 13 games in Minnesota that season before being traded to the 76ers.
While his time in Philadelphia was more successful, it was nonetheless marred by familiar interpersonal turmoil. Once again, Butler complained (probably accurately) that no one else worked as hard as he did. He left Philly after a single season, moving to the Heat in a sign-and-trade deal. Considering the results, we can fairly assume his new squad has been working hard enough. Perhaps Joel Embiid, Butler’s former teammate in Philly, put it best when he tweeted the following during Sunday’s game:
Butler’s mentality can come off as performative, and it doesn’t help that he has credited his friend, fellow work-hard grinder Mark Wahlberg, for inspiring this approach. (Like most friendships, theirs began with Wahlberg filming a Transformers sequel in Chicago.) But his stardom in these playoffs both support and promote The Tao of Jimmy. With key teammates ailing, LeBron and the Lakers might not really be in trouble. But a close study of Butler’s career suggests that the guy we saw in Game 3 is the real Jimmy. He really does work harder than everyone else, and he wants to make sure you know it.
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