Major League Baseball’s list of such specialists through the years includes Mariano Rivera, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage, among the many.
In another sport and another time, a Timberwolves team that lost double-digit leads 22 times last season acquired three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler, who with toughness both mental and physical is establishing himself as one of his game’s best closers.
A compilation of all his clutch shots late in games runs nearly six minutes on one YouTube channel. The Wolves themselves knew early about a guy willing to take the crucial shot — and make it more often than miss — or sacrifice his body getting to the free-throw line when it matters most.
Butler was the Chicago Bull who taught new teammate Andrew Wiggins a rookie lesson in his third pro game. That’s when Butler slipped with the ball as the final seconds ticked away and still managed to fake Wiggins in the air, create contact and draw a foul that became two winning free throws with 0.2 seconds left at Target Center in November 2014.
Wiggins won’t soon forget a moment that Butler doesn’t remember.
“I’ve played so many games,” Butler said. “My memory is bad.”
But his will and timing have proved resolute for an All-NBA third-team selection last season who plays the piano, dominoes, billiards, checkers, even Connect 4 and fancies himself an NFL or Olympic track star off the court and is unwavering at both ends on it.
By Timberwolves coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau’s season analysis, the ways his team lost leads and games last season ran “the gamut” from second quarters surrendered by an overmatched bench to his starting five’s lousy third quarters and misguided late-game situations. Through it all, their defense and rebounding too often failed them when they needed it to be their bedrock.
“A lot of what we were doing wasn’t tough enough,” Thibodeau said. “We wanted change.”
Enter Butler, who leads a charge of newcomers that also includes new point guard Jeff Teague, former Bulls teammates Taj Gibson and Aaron Brooks and 18-year veteran Jamal Crawford.
Butler gives Thibodeau a star he knows well from their Chicago days together, and he gives the Wolves one of the league’s best two-way players who while with the Bulls earned from team TV announcer Stacey King the nickname “Jimmy G. Buckets.”
The G, of course, stands for “Gets.”
Clutch as it gets
Pal and Bulls teammate Dwyane Wade late last season marveled at what he called “the evolution of Jimmy Butler” and told the Chicago Tribune “for a guy who hadn’t had a lot of clutch moments in his career, he’s as clutch as it gets. Every time it’s a big shot, it seems like he makes it.”
Thibodeau and Butler, among others, attribute that clutch gene to a toughness that Butler himself can’t quantify. But he has shown it consistently since he scored 40 of his 42 points in the second half of a Bulls comeback victory at Toronto two seasons ago.
Part of it might come from a life in which he was a homeless teenager kicked out of the house by his mother at age 13 and taken in by a friend’s family. Part of it might come from a basketball career in which he overcame all odds through relentless work habits and an optimistic spirit on a journey from a Texas junior college and Marquette University to the 30th player selected in the 2011 NBA draft and now three-time All-Star.
“I think God blessed me like that,” he said. “I think I had some coaches who wouldn’t put up with quote-unquote not being mentally tough, soft, however you want to put it. I’ve just been that way for so long now that it’s part of my DNA.”
One of those coaches was Marquette’s Buzz Williams, who as an assistant there when he first spotted Butler playing junior-college ball in Texas. Another was Thibodeau, who studied Butler’s college career, saw a special brand of toughness and envisioned a pro player who could make his rotation.
“I didn’t know how soon it would happen,” Thibodeau said, “but I definitely knew it would.”
At age 28 now, Butler has become so much more than that.
Like teammate Gibson before him, Butler claims he didn’t talk to Thibodeau until his second NBA season, partly because Thibodeau barely played him during his rookie season — the NBA’s 2011-12 lockout season — except for a game at New York when Thibodeau needed another healthy player and Butler impressed.
“Thibs didn’t play me whenever I was younger, so I didn’t have many words to say to him anyway,” Butler said. “But I worked. He saw me in there working all the time, and then I’d grow up and become a man and eventually go in and sit down and talk to him in his office, knowing he’s a person like everybody else. He may intimidate you here and there, but he has a big heart.”
Separated for two seasons after the Bulls fired Thibodeau in 2015, the two are back together again, kindred spirits conjoined. Thibodeau supplies the tough love on which Butler learned to thrive, and Butler in turn provides the fortitude the Wolves last season lacked.
Whether he carefully tended it or is blessed with it, Butler was asked for his definition of toughness.
“Just the will to do whatever is asked of you at any point in time,” he said. “Never complaining, just getting it done to the best of your ability. I pride myself on that. I know one thing I think I have over anybody is that mental toughness. I may not be the most talented. I may not be this or I may not be that. But you’ll never take my heart from me. That’s something you can’t do.
“You can’t control how hard I play. I control that. That’s all part of being tough.”
He believes a closer can do so at either end of the floor and has won games at both ends both because of a body he has sculpted — “See these biceps and pectoral muscles? That’s from pushups” — and an endurance and will to win that pushes him on when others tire as the clock ticks out.
“It’s not only the game-winning shot,” said Crawford, who has played enough games (1,182) to know such things. “Honestly, the toughest shots of the game are where it’s a two-point game, 30 seconds left, you’re down two, you’re tired and you have to make that shot. And Jimmy has made every shot in every situation.”
Butler has done so with a body he trains all summer on the court and on the track, starting before dawn so it will persevere all game long the other three seasons.
He also has done so with what makes clutch players clutch: no fear of failure.
It’s what new teammate Teague, who has battled Butler in Eastern Conference games the past six seasons, calls “not afraid of the moment.”
“That is what this game and this league is calling for you to do,” Butler said. “You may fall, you have to get up. You may take a charge, you may be hurting. You may be out of breath. If you’re the toughest team night in and night out, which I want I to be, which I think we want to be, sometimes it’s the last two minutes or the last minute of the game, but that toughness is what’s going to be what wins it for you.”
Do as he does
Thibodeau said he saw signs of all that when Butler was a mostly unknown college player and when he was an NBA rookie who barely played.
“Being mentally tough when you face adversity is probably the most important thing there is, not just basketball but in life,” Thibodeau said. “He’s got it. He’s a tough guy. There’s nothing that he can’t do, and I think he’s better than he was last year and he was pretty darn good then. He’s a great person. He cares about people, cares about teammates. I think he’s grown. He’s a lot more comfortable. His leadership skills are terrific.
“It’s not what he’s saying, it’s what he’s doing: The way he works. The way he sees the game. The way he plays the game. He plays both sides of the ball. He practices great. He sets a great example for everyone, and he puts winning at the forefront.”
Butler competes almost as intently at cards, checkers or dominoes — “I’m the best, I’m a domino-tician” — as he does at basketball.
“I love this game, and I love to work at this game, but I don’t want that to be my entire life,” Butler said. “If I’m known just for being a basketball player, then my career wasn’t the right thing. I wasn’t doing it the right way.”
He plays the piano fluidly after the guitar hurt his fingers.
“I’ve never heard him play the piano,” said former Bulls teammate Gibson, “but with Jimmy you never really know.”
Gibson also has played with Butler long enough to term him a closer, even if Butler isn’t ready to do so himself.
“I don’t know, it’s a good question,” he said. “I just want to win. If they need me to shoot the ball late, I better be able to make it. If they want me to pass it, if they want me to guard, whatever it takes to win. Closer or beginner, win the game for your team and I guess you could be known for being it.”