IF THERE IS a basketball love language Tom Thibodeau and Jimmy Butler share, it centers on a single word: a four-letter one that starts with F. And it is said between them almost always as a sign of respect.
A few minutes after blasting — and singing every word to — a series of Nickelback songs from his portable speaker following a tough 126-114 overtime loss to the Orlando Magic in early March, 50 days prior to a showdown between the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference semifinals that only the two of them could have predicted, Butler is standing in the corner of the visitors locker room inside Amway Center. As Heat staffers consume a nearby postgame pizza spread, Butler is asked to share some of his favorite Thibodeau memories. He listens to a few ideas; he seems interested in the subject matter, but then declines to offer up any anecdotes of his own.
“F— Thibs,” he said, a smile cracking across his face. “F— your article. And I like Thibs.”
To those who know both men well, dating back to their time together a decade earlier with the Chicago Bulls, this is the type of response that defines their relationship.
Thibodeau and Butler are inextricably linked.
It was Thibodeau who coached the Bulls when they selected Butler, then a skinny swingman out of Marquette, with the 30th pick in the 2011 draft. It was Butler who poured himself into his craft to become the kind of two-way player who earned Thibodeau’s trust, ultimately earning a max contract from the Bulls that the organization never envisioned needing to offer. It was Thibodeau, after getting fired by the Bulls, who traded for Butler as the new coach and president of basketball operations of the Minnesota Timberwolves, building around a player he believed could be the face of his new team. And a little over a year later, it was Butler, then, who famously forced his way out of Minnesota, leading to Thibodeau’s firing from a franchise that had just made its first playoff appearance in 14 years.
Each man has found success since their most recent breakup in Minnesota. After a 55-game stint with the Philadelphia 76ers, Butler landed with the Heat and led them to within two games of an NBA title during an unlikely run in the Orlando bubble in 2020. Thibodeau, hired by the Knicks in 2020, became coach of the year in 2021, 10 years after first accomplishing the feat with the Bulls in 2011 — and has the team back in the conference semifinals for just the second time in 23 years (Game 3 Saturday at in Miami at 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
Now, as the main characters of a renewed rivalry between the Knicks and Heat, Thibodeau summed up how both men feel playing in a series where storylines abound.
“I know what he’s about. He knows what we’re about,” Thibodeau said. “So let’s go. Let’s see what up.”
TUCKED IN THE suburban woods about 30 miles northwest of Madison Square Garden, the MSG Training Center houses the practice facilities for both the Knicks and the New York Rangers — and it is bustling two days before the Eastern Conference semifinals begin. As Knicks players get shots up in the nearby gym, Thibodeau, dressed in a familiar black sweatshirt, sits behind a table with an ease about him. To those that had been around the veteran coach all season, it is one of his most laid back and informative news conferences of the year. Instead of deflecting questions about his former player, Thibodeau makes an acknowledgment about Butler that is years in the making.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t see this,” Thibodeau says while answering a question about what he saw in Butler early in his career. “The things that stood out were his toughness, competitiveness … I didn’t know how good he would become.”
The one person who did? Butler.
It’s one of the reasons why the pair has clicked — and, at times, famously clashed — throughout their time together in the league. Thibodeau always believed most in the work, in the grind. No player Thibodeau has encountered during his time as an NBA coach has embraced that belief more than Butler. It’s why Butler, and some in the Bulls’ front office, used to get frustrated early in his tenure with the Bulls when Thibodeau wouldn’t play him — and it’s why Thibodeau’s story about the first time Butler ever got real minutes in a game that mattered is so telling.
“I felt like we were getting a rotation player,” Thibodeau said. “I didn’t know how good he would become. I think his first year was the lockout year, he was playing behind Luol Deng, really the first opportunity he had to play was here at the Garden. It was midway [through the season], Luol was out, he had to guard Melo. And he came in — I was talking to the coaches before the game, I said, ‘Are we really playing him? First game [here]?’ And he was great. And that told me a lot about him right there. And then each year he just got better and better.”
It was a seminal moment for Butler, not only with Thibodeau, but with his veteran teammates.
“I still remember that game against the Knicks, when they put him in the fire,” former Bulls center Joakim Noah said. “He actually played very well against Carmelo [Anthony]. He was the difference-maker in that game.”
In November 2014, with his star on the rise, Butler tied a career high with 32 points in a loss to the Denver Nuggets. After the game, Thibodeau doled out high praise for a player who was starting to show more than anyone inside the Bulls organization ever expected.
“He’s a star, and he does it on both ends of the floor,” Thibodeau said. “He’s just an amazing player.”
A few minutes later, Butler deflected both the praise, and the moniker.
“I’m not a star,” Butler said. “I’m a good role player on a really, really good team. A really, really deep team. I like role players. ‘Star’ has never been next to Jimmy Butler’s name, it never will be. I’ll always be just an under-the-radar dog.”
After Butler earned his first All-Star selection a few months later he was asked, prior to the game at MSG, what he felt his defining All-Star characteristic was.
“How hard I play,” he said.
In the span of a few short years, Butler had gone from a little used defensive-minded bench player — one who former teammate Richard Hamilton said shot the ball “like a dart” — to the best player on the team. But concurrent with his rise on the court was a personality shift off of it, increasingly isolated thanks to, as many inside the organization believed, a burgeoning ego that had swelled with his success.
It was a precursor of things to come for both Butler and Thibodeau. For as strong as the bond was between Butler and the Bulls, his rise within the organization caused friction within the locker room. And while players still respected Thibodeau, his methods had worn on a proud group of players that had grown tired of his demanding approach over five years.
As Butler accumulated success and accolades on and off the floor, Thibodeau, in his own struggle for power, wanted more control over how to run his team; the Bulls’ front office wanted a more collaborative approach. His relationship with executive vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman had unraveled, and the pair fired Thibodeau after the 2014-15 season.
After the 2016-17 season, one in which Butler averaged 23.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 5.5 assists, all career highs, he was in line for a new five-year max deal that he could have signed as early as the summer of 2018. But, Chicago hesitated for the second time, unsure they wanted to commit to Butler in the future for that kind of money.
Butler desperately wanted not only the money, but the respect that came with being the face of an organization. The Bulls always believed in Butler, but were never convinced he would be the type of star who would lead them to another title. So during the summer of 2017, they moved him to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who had a second-year coach who wanted to build around somebody he believed in: Tom Thibodeau.
Thibodeau and Butler’s year-plus together in Minnesota featured appropriate successes — and perhaps even more appropriate implosions.
Butler’s well-documented practice eruption in 2018, in the midst of a trade request that Thibodeau wasn’t keen to accept, is the most notorious, but he did lead the Timberwolves to their first playoff appearance in 14 years and did so with a lingering frustration that the Timberwolves’ younger players, notably Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, weren’t putting in the requisite work that he felt was needed to compete for a championship.
Thibodeau could no longer keep the egos inside the locker room in check as fraying relationships within the organization led to his second undoing as a head coach.
Five months later, standing in a gym inside the Bakar Fitness Center on the UCSF Mission Bay campus, a stone’s throw away from where Chase Center was still under construction in September 2018, Thibodeau was asked whether a reconciliation between Butler and the Timberwolves was still possible.
“I just deal with reality,” he said.
Six uncomfortable weeks later, Butler was traded to the 76ers and Thibodeau was fired from Minnesota a few months after.
Despite yet another public breakup, the respect between Butler and Thibodeau never wavered.
THERE IS 5:09 left in the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, and the Heat are clinging to a 95-92 lead as a sold-out crowd inside MSG reverberates with excitement.
Butler has the ball just above the 3-point line, just a few feet in front of famed director, and rabid Knicks fan, Spike Lee. Knicks swingman Josh Hart is draped around him.
Heat center Bam Adebayo comes over to set a screen on Hart, but Butler declines it, dribbling to his right, pushing ahead of Hart just above the free throw line. Hart tries to close the gap but the pair collide at the right elbow. As they make contact, Butler hoists a shot to ensure he gets two free throws, but as he comes down, he rolls his right ankle over Hart’s outstretched right foot. He falls to the ground, in immediate agony.
As Butler writhes, Spoelstra stands 30 feet away in disbelief. He utters one word to sum up the situation.
Thibodeau watches the play unfold from five steps away. His right hand shakes with tension. He follows the flight of the ball and instantly throws his arms up in the air to protest Bill Kennedy’s foul call.
Butler, to no one’s surprise, stays in the game, hobbling around the floor as a decoy, parking himself in the corner behind the three-point arc.
The entire sequence exemplifies the way both men have approached their respective careers. The pair is unified in the belief that the answer to every question centers around more work. After more than a decade competing with — and against — each other, there is a mutual admiration that has blossomed in the struggle.
After Game 2, which Butler missed because of the ankle injury, Thibodeau, sitting inside the MSG media room in the Garden, is asked if he was preparing as if Butler would play in Game 3. Twenty minutes earlier, as New York was cementing its six-point victory, Butler, in street clothes, had shared a knowing nod and smile with cheering Knicks fans.
Back in the conference room, Thibodeau doesn’t hesitate. His baritone voice echoes through the room.
“You already know the answer to that.”
After a brief pause, he breaks tradition. He smiles too.