Miami Heat All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler loves being the man who sets the tone for his team. He enjoys the challenge that comes with bringing the high-level intensity each and every day for a team that believes it can contend in the Eastern Conference.
That's why Monday's 114-92 win over T.J. Warren and the Indiana Pacers left Butler smiling from ear to ear. Not only did he get his team back on track after he missed three straight games because of a right foot injury, but he also did so against Warren, with whom he exchanged some heated words after a win over the Pacers in January.
"The depth of our team obviously is a big-time strength, the fact that we have a lot of different variety to our offense, but make no mistake about this: Jimmy Butler is a go-to guy," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "And you saw that tonight. I don't even care what his field goal percentage was. He was dictating the game. The ball was going through him. That's the definition of a go-to player. It's when your offense knows where the ball has to go, and he makes the right plays."
Butler went 5-for-13 from the field, but he made his impact all over the floor, finishing with 19 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals and 1 block in 29 minutes. That he helped limit Warren to 5-for-14 shooting from the field in the win made it that much sweeter after Butler said in January that Warren said something "truly disrespectful" and that Warren was "trash."
"We just made everything tough on him," Butler said in a postgame interview with Fox Sports Florida. "He's been on a tear lately, I will say that. But when you go up against the Heat, we always have something in our back pocket."
Throughout his career, Butler has had a long memory. He remembers all the slights that have defined his career and has never shied away from a challenge when he feels disrespected. That's why his performance against the Pacers shouldn't come as a surprise, especially given that the numbers show that he has consistently given Warren problems on the defensive end.
According to Second Spectrum, Warren has scored 22 points in 173 matchups against Butler in his career, which is tied for his fewest against any defender he has matched up against at least 150 times.
After the game, Spoelstra downplayed the significance of Butler's showdown with Warren, instead focusing on Butler's overall importance to the Heat.
"Anything right now with the NBA is good," Spoelstra said. "We need this. We need competition. So much of [the Butler-Warren rivalry] was just a storyline, but who cares really? I know it was months ago, but hey, we're out here completing a season and just about on the brink of the playoffs in a global pandemic. It's just all good right now, the fact that we're able to do this -- and if it contributes to interest because people want that storyline, so be it."
Warren, who came into the game averaging 34.8 points per game in the bubble, gave the Heat's defense credit after the game.
"I could tell they had a good, little plan off the ball screens," Warren said. "We've just got to be able to make adjustments offensively as a team. But like I said before, we had good looks. We just didn't make them tonight. We can't hang our heads. It's just one game. We've got a lot more games to play. We're just going to watch film, adjust and get ready for the next game."
The Pacers will get their chance when they see the Heat again Friday, but both teams are ready for a 4/5 matchup in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
With Butler back and serving as the emotional engine for the Heat group, they are ready for whatever happens the next few weeks. However, veteran guard Goran Dragic, who came back after missing two games because of an ankle injury, admitted that they wanted to send a message to the Pacers on Monday.
"We came out from the first minute that this is going to be a really important game for us," Dragic said. "You can see Jimmy was locked in, everybody basically, and it was a helluva team win. We've beat them three times, but every time it's going to be different. Every time, we need to bring our best game and try to finish the business."
ESPN's Tim Bontemps contributed to this story.