NBA Finals 2023: What Kyle Lowry and Jimmy Butler's grouchy friendship means to the Heat

IT'S A DAY before Game 3 of the 2023 NBA Finals, and Kyle Lowry is standing in front of black double doors leading to the Miami Heat's locker room as media and team staffers whiz back and forth on the red carpet in front of him.

At 37, Lowry is in his 18th NBA season. He's on his fourth team. He's a six-time All-Star and an NBA champion. His Heat teammates and coaches believe he will be a Hall of Famer. And in his second full season in Miami, he desperately wants to win another title -- for the Heat, but also for a close friend. There is a part of him that believes this whole moment has unfolded the way it was supposed to.

That close friend, Heat star Jimmy Butler, feels the same way. The pair has dreamed about this moment for the better part of a decade. It's a friendship buoyed by the same values that have driven both players' unlikely paths to NBA stardom: work and trust. Teammates lovingly describe both men as "a--holes," and to both proud men it's a term of endearment. But the duo has cultivated the same values in a Heat locker room that has helped drive this team full of players who aspire to have careers just like them to within three games of an NBA championship.

The endless brotherly seesaw between the two proud friends has been on full display throughout the Heat's magical playoff run. After beating the fifth-seeded New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference semifinals May 12, Butler was asked what separates the Heat from the typical No. 8 seed.

"We got Kyle Lowry," Butler said, as a smile crossed his face.

Lowry, sitting next to a shirtless Butler at the podium, had his response ready.

"Shut the f--- [up]," Lowry said, breaking into a smile.

The rhythm the pair shares is evident on and off the floor and defines one of the league's most interesting high-profile friendships. It's also why Lowry is quick with an answer when asked what his friend's recruiting pitch was in summer 2021, prior to Lowry working out a sign-and-trade deal with the Raptors.

"It wasn't a pitch," Lowry told ESPN. "[It was:] Bring your ass here."

THE PAIR'S REUNION was years in the making. Nine years earlier, as Butler's Chicago Bulls played against Lowry and his Raptors, the pair developed a kinship through competition. They saw similarities in the way they played. They saw similar toughness -- both mental and physical -- and comparable NBA paths.

A year or two later, as their mutual respect grew, they exchanged numbers and planned to grab dinner.

"We just talked," Lowry said. "It was like, 'Yo, when you come to Chicago, let's go to dinner.' 'All right, bet. Let's do it.'"

In Lowry, Butler saw a player consumed with finding ways to win and working to get better, qualities he wished he had more of in Chicago. He saw somebody who reminded him of himself.

"Everything he is about is about winning," Butler told ESPN. "Whenever you get with other guys that they're only about winning, that's all that matters. It's not about stats, and about how many shots you get, not about how many stops you get, whatever you're asked of to do to help the squad win -- that's why we rock with one another."

And so the next time the Raptors came to town to face the Bulls, the two young stars broke bread.

"He picked me up and we went to dinner in Chicago," Lowry said. "And just sat there and just me and him. He wasn't Jimmy Butler, I wasn't Kyle Lowry. We were just two dudes having a good dinner and how he talked and how he was and how he thought was one of those things when you're just like, 'Man, such a great dude.'"

Why did it click so quickly?

"Honestly, I think it was just the way we played," Lowry said. "I think it was the way we competed against each other. I think that's where it's like, yo, he didn't care who I was, I didn't care who he was, we just wanted to win the game."

BACK ON MAY 12, minutes after completing the 4-2 series win against the Knicks, Butler, still shirtless, sat at the podium inside the Heat's interview room. Lowry then sat down next to him, ready with the kind of one-liner that any older brother would appreciate.

"I would take my shirt off," Lowry said. "But I don't want to embarrass him."

Twenty-five days later, just a few steps away from the same interview room inside Kaseya Center, Lowry and Butler's improbable journey continues in the Finals. It's just after 1 p.m. the day before Game 3, and Lowry has stopped answering questions about the X's and O's of Games 1 and 2.

Now, he's just reminiscing.

He tells a story about one of the key moments that cemented the duo's bond -- with the pair representing Team USA at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

"We just got close," Lowry says. "We really got close by playing cards. Playing spades with Sue [Bird] and Diana [Taurasi]."

Then Lowry makes a declaration as Butler walks back into the locker room.

"They are cheaters in cards," Lowry says. "And please make sure that they [know that]."

"How bad are Sue and Diana cheaters in cards," Lowry says to Butler. "At spades, they're cheaters."

"Yes," Butler says, as the two make plans to meet up later.

As Lowry moves on from his dismay of being cheated by two of basketball's all-time-great players, he expounds on how the Rio Olympics formed the bond that has carried them forward.

"[It] helped us be around each other even more," Lowry says. "And we won a gold medal together, that's big. I love the way he competed."

In the midst of their path to gold, Butler and Lowry made a pact.

"We talked about this in 2016," Butler says. "We had some other guys on board as well that went other ways, but Kyle stuck to his word. I told him whenever me and you get together, we will win a championship. So I got the end of that bargain to hold up."

Did Lowry and Butler ever think their reunion would take place in Chicago instead of Miami?

"No comment," Lowry says with a smile.

Butler offers a more direct answer.

"Nah," Butler says. "Uh-uh ... I didn't think Chicago would be the spot.

"I couldn't tell you what I thought that spot would be, but I'm grateful that it's here. ... I'm glad that we get the opportunity, and we will get this city a championship."

When the chance finally came to join forces in Miami two years ago, Lowry knew what to do. After spending nine seasons in Toronto, he was looking for a fresh start -- and one with Butler.

"We planned to figure out how to play with each other," Lowry says. "And we always believed that it was going to happen, but when the opportunity was here, the opportunity came. It was like I had to, it's my brother."

KEVIN LOVE, THE 15-year veteran who signed with the Heat in February and won a title as a member of the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers, immediately recognized the bond that binds the Heat.

"They just have an understanding," Love told ESPN of Lowry and Butler. "Their relationship, I don't know how much time you've seen them interact, but they just have a true understanding of one another and a special relationship. They obviously would never say that 'cause they're both a--holes, but no, they truly are high-level thinkers, competitors and Hall of Famers."

It's a sentiment shared up and down the locker room by a group of players who have learned to embrace the curmudgeonly pair for who they are -- and what they preach. Even if their methods are ... different.

"It's tough to compare Jimmy to anybody," Heat guard Max Strus told ESPN. "He's one in his own world, but they do get each other. ... It's special to have them both on our team and learn from both of them."

Said Lowry: "I think just respect for what each other had to go through and how we've gotten to the point where we got to where we are. We just have this weird dynamic of understanding and respecting each other that goes way back before being teammates. And that's why I'm here, to play for him, play with him, and get to this point."

Love, who has certainly seen unusual team dynamics in Minnesota and Cleveland, laughs when asked whether it's like playing with two Oscars from Sesame Street.

"Yeah, but I love Oscar the Grouch," Love said. "On Sesame Street, he's one of my favorite [characters]. No, I think they both have a leadership style that if you're not going to meet us all the way there, then we don't want to go to war with you. So they make you get all the way there with them and say, 'Hey, we're going to compete every single game and we're coming out to win.'"

It's an assessment Butler agrees with. Twelve years into the league, Butler describes how his own leadership has evolved.

"I lead a lot by example," Butler said. "I don't got too much to say no more just because I've learned the way I say stuff, everybody doesn't take to it the same way. So I actually let K-Love and Kyle be more so of the vocal leaders. I'mma just give you a look and you're going to know like, 'Look, man I'm not here for that.'

"Or I'mma just go out there and play hard as s--- and then show you, 'This is what we're going to do.' And then that's up to everybody else to talk about it. I'm done talking."

BACK OUTSIDE THE doors of the locker room, Lowry's walk down memory lane in Rio is interrupted as he tries to plan out the rest of his day with Butler. Lowry has a quick conversation with him about where he'll be later because he wants to make sure he can swing by to see his goddaughter: Butler's daughter, Rylee.

"I'm his daughter's godfather," he said proudly before Game 1 in Denver. "My baby Rylee."

The interaction underscores the bond between the teammates. It's familial. A deep trust. Loyalty.

"It's no coincidence when you got a relationship off the basketball court of respect and friendship, it just makes it easier to build a relationship," veteran Heat leader Udonis Haslem told ESPN. "... Their families hang out, their kids hang out, they spend time together. That allows them to be on the same page when they get on the basketball court."

After struggling throughout his career to find common ground with some of his teammates at various NBA stops, Butler has found both an organization and a player who embrace him for exactly who he is.

"We're always like this," Butler said, noting how much their families hang out together. "But on the court, he's a champion for a reason. He's an Olympic gold medalist for a reason. His jersey will be retired for a reason, Hall of Fame for a reason, but it's all because he's all about winning."

It's an approach that has defined the Heat for almost three decades under the leadership of team president Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra. It's also what makes Butler and Lowry's partnership unique.

"They're a different breed," Strus said. "They're different, the way they go about their work is different, but at the end of the day they're great teammates, they're great human beings and they care about everybody on the team."

It's also why Lowry doesn't hesitate to describe what it would mean to win a championship with Butler.

"Everything," Lowry said. "You would see the biggest hug, the biggest hug from me and him that you'll ever see in anybody in life because that's all I want for him, is to get that. All I want for him is to get that."

ESPN's Ohm Youngmisuk contributed to this report.