Butler's attitude rubs off on Mavericks

DALLAS -- The Dallas Mavericks understood that however hard he worked, forward Caron Butler probably would not be joining this team of ring-less veterans on its pursuit of an NBA title.

So they dedicated the journey to him.

"We all said when the playoffs started we wanted to do it for him," guard Jason Terry said. "And if you ask him, I'm one of the guys that told him, 'Hey, we're doing this for you this time, big boy.' I told you we'd do it and it's here now."

The rugged, 6-foot-7 Butler would be a significant asset for Dallas in the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat. In two regular-season games against the Heat, he averaged 18.0 points on 54.2 percent shooting and defensively helped limit LeBron James to 30.6 percent shooting from the field.

But Butler ruptured the patellar tendon in his right knee in front of numerous family and friends in Milwaukee on Jan. 1. The Racine, Wis., native underwent surgery a few days later and has since been a constant presence around the team -- and a source of inspiration, the team says -- as he bulldozes through rehabilitation.

Mavs coach Rick Carlisle reiterated that Butler is a long shot to play during the Finals, but he refuses to shut the door on a possible return. Butler has yet to practice with the team and Carlisle continues to be vague about a potential timeline even though he said Butler's recovery is well ahead of schedule.

Butler was away from the team Saturday to attend to a family situation. He is expected to fly with the team to Miami on Sunday.

"He gets closer all the time. Really, I don't want to close the door on it because with him, he's never a guy you want to bet against," Carlisle said. "He's just one of those special guys. He's a month-and-a-half, two months ahead of the normal rehab schedule for a normal human being. It just shows the kind of work he's put into it, the sort of single-minded compulsiveness of his approach and how diligent he's been.

"It's been an inspiration to have him around. I just don't think it's the right thing to close the door even though I think it's unlikely [he'll play]."

A Butler return could have a similar emotional lift for the Mavs as Butler's former teammate with the Heat, Udonis Haslem, has had on his team. The blue-collar Haslem, in his eighth year with the Heat, played the first 13 games of the regular season before a foot injury sidelined him until late in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

He played in all five East finals games against the Chicago Bulls, averaging a hard-working 22.2 minutes a game. His hustle is credited for tilting pivotal Game 2 in Miami's favor.

Butler was close to overtaking Terry as the team's second-leading scorer and was riding a sensational two-week wave before he went down.

He has seen two of his former teams, the Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers, win championships after he departed. His current teammates know they could use what Butler -- long ago given the nickname "Tuff Juice" -- brings in what promises to be a physical Finals matchup against the star-studded Heat.

"He gives you that mental toughness, that edge we like to play with," Terry said. "He would definitely help us because his ability to one, create his own shot, and then defensively he could matchup obviously with LeBron and Dwyane Wade. He would be another guy that would be on one of those guys."

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.