On the eve of their NBA Eastern Conference semifinal series opener against the New York Knicks, the Heat star downplayed the student-mentor storyline between him and his former coach.
“We’re not gonna make this a Thibs vs. myself thing. We’re not gonna even talk remotely about that. Because it’s gonna take our entire roster to be able to do something special, especially when we’re on the road and come back home. It’s the Miami Heat vs. New York Knicks.”
Butler said that playing against the Knicks coached by Thibodeau, who molded him from a late first-rounder into a perennial All-Star, “is like going any other coached team.”
No matter how Butler downplays that angle, it will be the most fascinating storyline in this series.
Butler will be the focal point of a Knicks’ defense, especially after he scored 98 points over his last two games against the Milwaukee Bucks, who had the fourth-best defense in the league entering the playoffs. The six-time NBA All-Star averaged 37.6 points on 59.7% field goal shooting and 44.4% from deep in the first round to lead all players in scoring in this playoffs.
Tom Thibodeau is Hyped to Face Jimmy Butler
If there’s anyone who can devise a game plan to stop Butler, it’s Thibodeau.
Thibodeau expressed his excitement to face his former player in their playoff battle.
“I said this many times, anyone that you’ve coached and have been around, I always follow and support him and want him to do well except when we play each other,” Thibodeau told reporters after Friday’s practice. “So, I know what he’s about. He knows what we’re about. So, let’s go and see what’s up!”
Butler spent his first four seasons in the NBA under Thibodeau in Chicago, where he grew from the 30th pick of the 2011 NBA Draft into the Most Improved Player of the Year and an All-Star in 2015. Thibodeau was unceremoniously fired after that season.
Thibodeau traded for Butler when he became the coach and president of the Minnesota Timberwolves and they ended the franchise’s 14-year playoff drought before things spiraled out of control. Butler forced a trade in 2018 and Thibodeau got fired shortly after.
Karl Anthony-Towns on Knicks Radar
Another former Thibodeau player is flying on the Knicks’ radar in their bid to move up to the upper tier of the crowded Eastern Conference.
Karl Anthony Towns, who Thibodeau coached in Minnesota and also a former client of Knicks president Leon Rose, could become available if the Timberwolves decide to build around Anthony Edwards and try to make the Rudy Gobert gamble work.
“The interest in making that happen would be mutual, for sure,” one league source told Heavy Sports’ Sean Deveney. “KAT and the Knicks are intertwined. To some people, it is more a matter of when they go after him, not if.”
Towns, who came back late in the season from a calf injury, averaged 18.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.0 assists in their five-game ouster at the hands of the West’s top-seed Denver Nuggets.
“You can still sell high on Towns even though it was not a great year for him,” an Eastern Conference executive told Heavy Sports’ Sean Deveney. “He’s signed. He’s still young (27). And he’s good. But you need to have a tougher team around him, and you want him in a comfort zone. That is why the Knicks are always coming up—he is from Jersey, he has a base there. And personnel-wise, it would be a good mix. Everyone knows the connections there, everyone knows there is an interest.”