Jimmy Butler is in his first NBA Finals.
Roughly three years and three months after the Bulls began their rebuild by trading Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves, he has found his perfect fit with the Miami Heat.
That was evident well before Sunday night, when the Heat downed the Boston Celtics in six games to become Eastern Conference champions and advance to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. It was obvious back in November 2019.
That’s when Butler arrived at the United Center for the first time since choosing the Heat in free agency.
“It’s our whole organization. Everybody is around the work every day. Everybody is putting their time in,” Butler said that day. “It just makes me smile because that’s what I do. I don’t got too much to say. It makes it fun because when you put in that much work, you’re not doing it for no reason. You’re doing it because you want to win.”
The Heat won that night — the same night former coach Jim Boylen pulled Zach LaVine early and alone in a watershed moment for the Bulls 2019-20 season — and have kept winning, jumping from the fifth seed to knock off the top-seeded Bucks and favored Celtics.
On his third team since the Bulls traded him, Butler is the best player on an Eastern Conference champion and now will match up against an old foe from his Bulls days in LeBron James.
“It’s been like this for a very long time: If you want to win, you’re going to have go through a LeBron James-led team,” Butler said on his Zoom media availability session Sunday night.
The Heat chase championships. They’re back in the NBA Finals for the first time since 2014, back when James played for them. But given that Sunday night marked the one-year anniversary of Butler’s introductory news conference, even Heat coach Erik Spolestra stopped for some reflection.
“It was one of the most amazing recruiting visits we’ve ever had last June. It was so conversational. You just felt like after 20 minutes we were so aligned with how we viewed competition and work,” Spoelstra said on his Zoom media availability session. “He leads. He doesn’t have to make any apologies for who he is. We love him. I think everybody in the league who knows basketball knows he impacts winning. For us, that’s our language.”
After forcing his way out of Minnesota and leaving the 76ers’ max offer on the table to pick the Heat, Butler has slipped into the veteran winner role held by such franchise icons as Alonzo Mourning and Dwyane Wade. He smiled when relayed Spoelstra’s recruiting visit story, which of course also was attended by Heat president Pat Riley.
“I think that’s what this whole thing comes down to — being wanted, being appreciated for what you bring to the table,” Butler said. “We’re not for everybody. I’m not for everybody. But here I am. The group of guys that we have, we’re for one another. My leadership style works here.”
Butler never wanted to leave the Bulls. That he’s reaching his first NBA Finals just as the Bulls overhauled their management and coaching staffs can’t be overlooked.
Butler said reaching his first NBA Finals felt like everything he thought it would be. But he also fittingly kept reminding everybody that the work isn’t done.
“I said it time and time again, I believe in our group,” he said. “I know we can still win four more. We’re not satisfied.”