Their strong bond was forged in Chicago, where Thibodeau molded Butler from a late first-round pick in 2011 into an All-Star and Most Improved Player of the Year by the time they first parted ways in 2015.
In 2018, Butler was Thibodeau’s best player when he ended the Timberwolves’ 14-year playoff drought.
“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!”
Thibodeau’s bold statement came on the heels of Butler downplaying his first playoff face-off with his former coach.
“Ain’t nobody worried about Thibs,” Butler told reporters after scoring 42 points in Game 5 to eliminate the Bucks in Milwaukee on Wednesday.
Their familiarity with each other will be an intriguing subplot in the sixth playoff confrontation between the Knicks and the Heat, two bitter rivals that peaked in the 90s when Thibodeau was an assistant coach in New York.
Butler is coming to New York scorching red-hot after averaging 37.6 points on 59.7% field goal shooting and 44.4% from deep against the Bucks, who owned the fourth-best defense in the league throughout the regular season.
Stopping Butler on his tracks will be crucial for the Knicks, who are expected to welcome back Quentin Grimes after a two-game absence.
Quentin Grimes Could Be the Knicks’ X-Factor
Grimes’ return should boost the team’s shooting against the Heat that likes to play zone defense against the Knicks. On top of that, he’ll also be tasked to defend Butler.
Grimes averaged 16.3 points on 55% field goal shooting and a scorching 50% from deep in four games against the Heat this season. He totaled 15 3-pointers against the Heat, going 11-for-20 from behind the arc in their final two meetings last month.
Per NBA.com’s matchup tracker, Grimes defended Butler for 109.6 partial possessions in their four meetings this season. Grimes held the Heat star to 20 points (5.0 points per game) on 7-of-16 shooting.
Grimes told reporters on Friday that he felt good in his first full practice with the team since sustaining a contused right shoulder in Game 3 of their first-round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Julius Randle Hopes to Return in Game 1
The Knicks need a healthy Randle not only to bully the Heat’s thin frontline led by a hobbling Bam Adebayo, who suffered a hamstring strain in Game 4 of their first-round series against the Bucks but continued to play through it, but also make Butler work hard on defense.
Per NBA.com’s matchup tracker, Butler defended Randle for 68.3 partial possessions in their previous four meetings, the third-most among all the players the Heat’s star have guarded this season. Over that span, Randle scored 21 points (5.3 points per game) on 9-of-22 field goal shooting and 3-of-8 from behind the arc.