The Miami Heat are headed to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2014. After finishing a 103-94 series-clinching Game 5 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday, All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler sent a warning signal to the rest of the league as the upstart Heat continue to surprise with their play in the bubble.
When asked if his team has played its best basketball yet, the always confident Butler was quick with an answer.
"No, I don't think so," he said. "I don't think we've played a full 48-minute game yet. And that what's promising. When we do lock in and decide to play from start to finish, I think the game would be a lot easier. I don't think it's happened yet, but we have to next round."
The Heat have been the surprise of the NBA's restart, racking up an 8-1 record and qualifying for a conference finals berth for the first time since LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were leading the way.
After all the emotional ups and downs throughout the season, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra spoke with pride as he discussed his team's rise through the Eastern Conference playoffs.
"I want our guys to just step back at least for a night, if not two nights, and just reflect," Spoelstra said. "It's not easy to get to the conference finals, and our organization knows that. We've been trying desperately to get back to the conference finals. It's not our ultimate goal -- we get it -- but you can still acknowledge the journey, how hard it is to this point.
"That is why we brought Jimmy Butler here. That is why we put this team together with the veterans -- adding Andre [Iguodala] and Jae [Crowder], building around Goran [Dragic] and Bam [Adebayo], having a young core -- was to try and do something in the playoffs. It's not easy to get to the conference finals. Otherwise, every team would be doing it."
As usual for the Heat, it was a team effort to pull off the win, as there were six players in double figures. But as has become custom in the postseason, it was Butler who made play after play to lift the group. After an uneven first quarter in which he repeatedly turned the ball over, Butler finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists and a steal to help close out a Bucks team playing without Giannis Antetokounmpo (ankle).
"It means a lot," Butler said of leading a team to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time. "But like you said, that's not my goal. That's not my guys' goal. It's not the organization's goal. We want to win it, win a championship, and I think that's what we're focused on. These next eight are going to be much harder than the previous eight. We know that, but we're ready."
For Butler, Tuesday's win was the latest chapter in his yearlong image rehabilitation. After rocky exits from the Chicago Bulls, Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers the past two years, Butler appears to have found his forever basketball home within the confines of the Heat's businesslike culture. The Heat needed Butler as much as he needed them, and it's a partnership that continues to pay more dividends than most people within the league thought it could this season.
"It's better," Butler said when asked if the organization's culture is as good as he thought it was when he agreed to terms with Miami last summer. "Like I always say, we just work here. We're so honest with one another. If you watch the game, you constantly see guys going back and forth, but nobody's taking it personally. Say what you got to say, and you move on from it. But that's what I love about this group of guys is you can always be honest with one another. Nobody's taking anything personal, no hard feelings, and everybody works."
After run-ins with various teammates and coaches in his past three NBA stops, Butler has found a kinship with Spoelstra and his teammates in Miami. One of those teammates is 20-year-old sharpshooter Tyler Herro, who scored 14 points, grabbed 8 rebounds and dished out 6 assists in 37 minutes Tuesday. Herro said earlier this season that Butler asked to work out with him last summer, and from those early moments, a friendship has developed for two of the core pieces of the Heat's present and future.
"I just came in with a killer mindset," Herro said. "I wanted to leave everything on the floor for my coaches and my teammates. It's one game. We needed it to move on to the next round. Tried to bring everything, and laid it all out on the floor tonight."
That is exactly the type of mindset Butler brings into each game, and that's the reason he has found such comfort with those around him these days. The Heat's younger players have the work ethic Butler always wanted to see from players on his former teams.
"It's the intensity level that he brings that's uncommon," Spoelstra said of Butler. "And we have quite a few competitive guys, but you don't see that many star-level players that are that ultra-competitive every single day. That breeds a level of confidence out of your team when your leader is like that. But I think the really unique quality about Jimmy is his relatability that you don't really see unless you're around him all the time. He's such a likable guy. He won't want anybody to know that, I guess.
"He's totally cool with the young guys growing and becoming new players, better players, as the season goes on. He's not territorial about it all. He's just about winning, and he understands that he needs guys with him. All the big winners get that, and he's been around long enough to know that we're going to need everybody and everybody playing at a high level."
As he has done throughout the season, Butler took pride in singing Herro's praises.
"He's just so comfortable, so confident," Butler said. "He plays with a swag that you think he was going on 31 like me. And we love him for that. We wouldn't change him. We want him to stay that exact same way moving into the Eastern Conference finals."
Butler noted that he isn't surprised the Heat have come together so quickly this season. He said he always believed they could have this kind of success because he trusted the amount of work the group was putting in. But when asked if he feels vindicated now that the Heat are primed for their first conference finals appearance in six years, Butler took a measured approach.
"Nah, I really don't [think about it]," he said. "You can't help but to hear what people say, but that's what's wrong with [the conversations] anyway. People don't mind their own business. People always got something to say. And you're right, you have your own opinion, but I do what I think is best for me, what's best for these guys, and as long as I'm happy, those guys are happy. I'm content. I don't pay attention to what anybody says. I just try to live my life the best way I know how."
For a player who was the last pick in the first round of the 2011 NBA draft -- whose career has been defined by hard work and playing with a chip on his shoulder -- that was one of the rare moments over the past two months when it was hard to believe what was being said. Those closest to Butler over the years have always known how much he thrives off the doubt, which is why he is so confident that there are even brighter days ahead for a group that wasn't even supposed to get to this point.