In the center of it all, still the most important player on the court, Jimmy Butler prepared for the coming stage by going one-on-one against 6-foot-4 reserve Javonte Smart, backing in for an easy basket.
This was after video session, after practice, after a team meeting Thursday where those the word, “champions,” was mentioned more than a few times and those owning a ring were noted.
The 6-8 Udonis Haslem then stepped on the court. Butler, at 6-7, used a first step and dribble to create an open jumper. Enter the smaller Smart again. Swish. Then the bigger Haslem. The ball bounces off the rim.
“Come on,’’ Butler says in a forceful way heard across the Heat practice court.
Butler talks of winning like a hungry man talks of food, and he’s about to step on the defining stage of his career. But he’s the kind of player for whom talk only covers so much.
For some it does more. For some it writes a path or offers leadership. The first question to Butler is about the Heat’s No. 1 seed being undervalued across basketball, as if it wasn’t fully respected.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,’’ he says, a smile and nod saying otherwise.
There’s no pushing Butler into anything, not a comment or middle age. For the moment — this coming playoff moment — he’s the one writing what happens.
Who is Butler? Where does he fit in the NBA hierarchy? Two years ago, he said, “I’m locked in,’’ before the playoff run of his career, an inspiring assault that helped the Heat to the NBA Finals.
Last year, he said, “I’m stupidly locked in,’’ before being part of the Heat’s meltdown while swept by Milwaukee. He shot 29.7 percent.
“Not at all,’’ he answers about that last year motivating him. “We don’t get too caught up in the past. We don’t get too caught up on the future, either.
“We know our goal is winning 16 games,’’ he says of the four playoff series needed to the title. “We’ve got to get the first, the second, then all the way down the line.”
He said this still sweating from those extra shots, the ones against a little-used reserve who’s trying to form a career and a little-used veteran with whom Butler publicly fought a few weeks back.
This is what families do, fight and make up, fight and turn the battle outward. Butler has fought with teammates everywhere he’s been: Chicago, Minnesota, Philadelphia.
The difference is the fight is for one idea with the Heat. They were reminded of that in the team meeting when all those who have won a title were noticed. Butler ticks through the names: Team president Pat Riley, coach Erik Spoelstra, Lowry, P.J. Tucker, Haslem.
“I know we all want to win a championship,’’ he said. “That’s our goal. That’s why Coach Pat put his roster together.”
Maybe they make that run. Certainly they’ll be a tough out. Butler is in the middle of all that, physically, psychologically, perpetually.
The Heat’s No. 1 seed paid worthwhile dividends, too. On Sunday, they’ll open play against a proper eighth seed in Cleveland or Atlanta, depending on their remaining play-in game. Advance and they’d get Philadelphia or Toronto rather than the expected Milwaukee.
The Heat added pit bulls like Lowry and Tucker for this time of year and was open to the development of little-knowns like Max Strus and Caleb Martin. They still don’t have a top-10 player on their team. But they have a few in the tier below that. Enough?
So much still centers on Butler.
“We’ve been a great team all year long,’’ he said. “But now’s the time we talk about. When we had this team meeting, a lot of championship talk happened, but I really, really, really think we have a good shot at this.”
All those players with rings in the team meeting, Butler isn’t one of them. It’s that time of year. He says what several players around the league are this week: “We’re going to find a way to get 16 wins.”