At the center of it all, still the most important player on the court, Jimmy Butler, backing up for an easy basket, went head-to-head against 6-foot-4 reserve Javonte Smart to prepare for the coming phase.
This was after a team meeting on Thursday, after a video session, after practice, where those words, “champions” were mentioned more than a few times and those who had a ring were noted.
After this 6-8 Udonis Haslem stepped on the court. Butler, at 6-7, used the first move and dribble to make an open jumper. Enter small smart again. Swish. Then a big deal. The ball bounces off the rim.
“Come on,” Butler heard emphatically on the Heat practice court.
Butler talks of winning like a hungry man talks of food, and he is about to enter a pivotal stage in his career. But he’s the kind of player for whom just talking makes a lot of sense.
For some it does more. For some it writes a path or provides leadership. The first question from Butler is about the Heat’s No. 1 seed being undervalued in basketball, as if not fully respected.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says, adding a smile and nodding otherwise.
Nothing to push Butler into anything, nor any commentary or middle age. For the moment – this coming playoff moment – he’s the one who writes what happens.
Who is Butler? Where does he fit into the NBA hierarchy? Two years ago, he said, “I’m locked in,” before the playoff run of his career, a motivational attack that helped the Heat to the NBA Finals.
Last year, he said, “I’m stupidly locked inside,” before becoming part of the meltdown of the Heat, swept by Milwaukee. He secured 29.7 per cent marks.
“Not at all,” he replies about the past year that inspired him. “We don’t get too caught up in the past. We don’t think too much about the future.
“We know our goal is to win 16 games,” he says of the four playoff series required for the title. “We have to go first, second, then all the way down.”
He said it is still sweating those extra shots against a little used reserve who is trying to build a career and a little used veteran with whom Butler did a few weeks ago. publicly fought.
That’s what families do, fight and build, fight and turn the fight outwards. Butler has fought with teammates everywhere: Chicago, Minnesota, Philadelphia.
The difference is that the fight is with the Heat for an idea. He was reminded that in team meetings the focus was on everyone who won a title. Butler ticks through the names: Team President Pat Riley, Coach Eric Spoelstra, Lowry, PJ Tucker, Haslem.
“I know we all want to win the championship,” he said. “That’s our goal. That’s why Coach Pat put his roster together.”
Maybe they make that run. Surely they will be a tough out. Butler is in the middle of all that, physical, psychological, forever.
The Heat’s No. 1 seed also paid meaningful dividends. On Sunday, they will play against a proper eighth seed in either Cleveland or Atlanta, depending on their remaining play-in games. Advance and they’ll get Philadelphia or Toronto instead of Milwaukee as expected.
The Heat added pit bulls like Lowry and Tucker for this time of year and was open to the development of little-known ones like Max Strauss and Caleb Martin. There is still no top-10 player in his team. But in the level below that they have few. enough?
A lot is still focused on Butler.
“We’ve been a great team all year,” he said. “But now it is time for us to talk. When we had a team meeting, there was a lot of championship talk, but I really, really think we have a good shot at this.”
Of all those players with rings in team meetings, Butler isn’t one of them. It is that time of year. He says how many players are around the league this week: “We’re going to find a way to get 16 wins.”