The 2020 Eastern Conference finals is primed to settle quite a few scores.
The surprise kings of the east in a year the Milwaukee Bucks were supposed to own. The counterpart for the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers or Denver Nuggets in a Finals that will cap off an NBA Playoffs like no other. Another chapter in the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics’ storied rivalry.
And, once and for all, a pressing question looms. Who, truly, is about that life: Jimmy Butler or Marcus Smart?
The answer, of course, is both. Resoundingly. But that verbiage first came from Butler amid a contentious 2017 first round series between the then-top-seeded Celtics and the eighth-seeded Bulls. Butler’s side took a 2-0 lead, but dropped Game 3 in a 17-point blowout.
Game 4 looked to be trending in that direction as well, with the Celtics leading by as many as 20 early in the second quarter. Then, the two agents of unbridled competitive chaos for their respective sides tangled:
The Bulls trailed 41-21 with just under nine minutes to play in the second when ball pressure from Butler opened the opportunity for an Isaiah Canaan steal-and-score at Smart’s expense. The Bulls entered the break having cut the lead to 11.
“He’s a great actor, acting tough,” Butler said after the game, which the Celtics won by nine to draw level at 2-2. “It’s what he does, but I don’t think he’s about that. I’m the wrong guy, to get in my face, so he needs to take that somewhere else. I’m not the one for that…”
Then, iconically: “He’s not about that life.”
“I laugh at that,” Smart later responded. “This is about the Celtics vs. the Chicago Bulls, not Marcus Smart vs. Jimmy. I ain’t gotta sit here and say this and that. I’m this, I’m that. I ain’t that type of guy. My actions speak louder than words.”
(Funny enough, Butler mirrored that sentiment this time around, telling NBC Sports Boston’s A. Sherrod Blakely earlier this week that Smart is “just another opponent I get the opportunity to go up against” and that he doesn’t want to “make this about me versus him.”)
Asked in April 2017 if he was, indeed, about that life, Smart responded: “I can show you better than I could tell you.”
And to his and the Celtics’ credit, they did. Boston, heavy favorites in the series, bounced the (Rajon Rondo-less) Bulls by double-digits in Games 5 and 6 and went on to make the Eastern Conference finals.
The Bulls, meanwhile, bounced Butler out of town in the trade that sparked the current rebuild two months later. The rest is history.
Now, three years later, Smart is still with the Celtics, making his third conference finals appearance in four seasons. Butler, in his first year with the Heat, is in his first — though his short-lived tenure in Philadelphia came a couple Kawhi clanks short of reaching the NBA’s final four.
Again, the Celtics will be favored. But the upstart Heat, staffed with battle-ready veterans and youngsters alike, proved their mettle disposing of the league-best Bucks in just five games in the second round. Butler led the charge with his trademark brand of defensive tenacity, bulldozer scoring style, savvy playmaking and late-game heroics.
Smart did the same in the Celtics’ seven-game series win over the defending champion Toronto Raptors. If there was a conference semifinals MVP award, Smart’s torrid 3-point shooting, lockdown defense against all assignments and tsunami of hustle plays — punctuated by this season-saving chasedown block — would have surely earned him the honors for Boston.
Could the two firebrands find themselves across from one another again? At some point, it’s likely they will. Base matchups aside, the Celtics and Heat each switch a fair amount — Boston more so than Miami — and each function as their teams’ de facto defensive stoppers.
In the one regular-season matchup both played in on Jan. 28, an eight-point Celtics win, Smart spent 15.5 partial possessions guarding Butler, according to NBA.com’s (admittedly incomplete) tracking data, and held him to just two points on 1-for-3 shooting with one turnover.
The inverse happened less often — Butler guarded Smart for just 6.9 partial possessions — which makes sense. Between Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward (who’s expected to make a return at some point this series), the Celtics have enough perimeter firepower to worry about without tossing their best stopgap at the streaky Smart.
Regardless, both are the emotional engines of their teams on the floor. They’ll play a big part in setting the tenor of this series, which should feature high-level competitiveness, X-and-O warfare between Brad Stevens and Eric Spoelstra and certainly endure six or seven games.
Basketball nirvana. And on the court, when Smart and Butler clash, it’s sure to be post-apocalyptic levels of fun to watch.