James Marci, Contributing Writer|
Giannis Antetokoumpo, dubbed “the Greek Freak” by fans, can only be described as a freak of nature . After all, he is just under seven feet tall, jacked and has super-human athletic ability. Antetokoumpo, the defending MVP, led the Milwaukee Bucks to the best record in the league this season and won Defensive Player of the Year along with being a current MVP finalist. After Giannis and his top-seeded Bucks soundly defeated the Orlando Magic in five games, they faced the Miami Heat in the second round. Many expected an entertaining series between the Bucks against the young and exciting Heat team, but not many expected a close series at all. To the surprise of many, the Miami Heat emerged victorious in five games, making the Bucks resemble the Magic who they had just soundly defeated.
The Miami Heat are the first five seed with a Conference Finals appearance since the 2013 Memphis Grizzlies. This is also the Heat’s first Conference Finals appearance since LeBron James left the organization after they lost the 2014 NBA Finals. It is an interesting question to ask how the Heat got into this position. While some might argue it’s their great chemistry and deep roster, one answer persists through any argument, and that answer is Jimmy Butler.
Butler is known for his passion that can rub some people the wrong way and for having a history of not meshing with his teammates or whatever organization he belongs to. Butler was the all-star front man of the Chicago Bulls for a few years before a trade sent him to an up and coming team in the Minnesota Timberwolves, who had two different first overall picks, Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Many NBA fans can remember the incident in fall 2018 where Jimmy Butler shouted expletives and ran the table with bench players against the young Timberwolf core in a scrimmage, where after Butler was traded at request to the Philadelphia 76ers, another young team.
In Philadelphia, Butler was a pivotal member of the team that came so close to last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. They only came short due to a miraculous four-bounce buzzer-beater from Kawhi Leonard, who would lead the Raptors to a championship in that same finals run. If you can drag the would-be champions to their last bit of vindictiveness, you would think a player with a desire to win like Jimmy Butler would choose to run it back.
This past summer, Butler was shipped to the Miami Heat in a sign-and-trade, which seemed like an odd fit to many, as the Heat had no other star. What the Heat did have, however, was the potential to have one of the deepest benches in the entire league. Looking at Miami’s present-day roster, aside from Jimmy Butler, you have a deadly three-point shooter and rookie Tyler Herro, two undrafted diamond-in-the-rough players in Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, young stud center Bam Adebayo (who had his first all-star appearance this year and seems to be the blossoming second star to complement Butler) plus Jae Crowder, a gritty forward who can match Butler’s passionate intensity. To top it all off, you have former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala who won three championships with the Golden State Warriors and Udonis Haslem, a Heat legend and fan-favorite who has played 16 years with the franchise.
The Heat are the whole package. They have a star in Butler, many young and talented pieces, plus some veteran experience. Now they face the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. The Celtics do not have one clear star like the Heat do, but lots of solid players that form a cohesive core. They have Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker, two players with at least one all-star appearance, along with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, both 20 points per game scorers, making up the Celtics core. Along with this core comes Marcus Smart, a defensive juggernaut that can help lead the effort to lock down the Heat.
The C’s have a long tradition of basketball prowess, and nobody would bat an eyelash if they made this year’s finals. But the Heat control the element of surprise, and if not, many saw the Heat getting this far in the playoff race, there’s no telling what else the Miami Heat and Jimmy Butler have up their sleeves. Butler is now in a position that will be a defining point in his career. He is now leading a team last led this far by LeBron James himself, and that is certainly a tough act to follow. The Heat is playing the team seen as LeBron’s former archnemesis, and if Butler can surmount the Celtics, he will most likely face one of two scenarios in the finals. The first being playing LeBron himself, and the second being playing the Clippers, led by Kawhi Leonard, the same man who crushed Butler’s playoff hopes back in Philadelphia. These great NBA storylines are all coming together, and only time will tell how history will be written.