What makes Jimmy Butler so great at stealing the basketball? It’s a question that Butler had a hard time answering himself when I asked him after Friday’s win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The reason that is such a hard question to answer is that it’s not one specific thing. It’s not two specific things. It’s not three specific things. It’s just an abundance of abilities that all come to one single point when it’s time for Butler to lock in on an opponent.
When evaluating the most apparent areas of this skill-set, it must begin with the fact that he can hit the passing lanes as well as anybody:
The pick six is usually the result when Miami blitzes a pick and pop, since that allows Butler to split the difference between the two players on his side, then jump the route when that decision is made.
The thing that must be noted here is that he always has his eyes on the guy with the ball. Emphasis on always. He begins to jump that passing lane on this play immediately when the blitz occurs, knowing that Karl-Anthony Towns is going to turn and make that bullet pass to Ricky Rubio a few feet away.
It’s just the defensive mind of Jimmy Butler.
How about another one? This one doesn’t involve any type of blitz on the ball-handler, but the way that he doesn’t allow any space leads to a risky pass and a tough result for Minnesota.
The key about this ability displayed here is what that steal turns into. Although this play ended in a block by Anthony Edwards, the importance is that they get out and run in transition, which is when this offense really begins to make their runs.
Now, for the last example, it’s one where Butler is blitzing this time. He doesn’t over-commit in the slightest way, just knowing that Coby White is going to try to make that over the top pass to the roller, as he’s reading his eyes.
The thing about this type of patience is that it’s a risk. But not many things are risky for Butler due to the fact he has high trust in his own abilities, and lives with the result. One thing he said when I asked him about these risks, “If I don’t (get the steal), I gotta hear Spo telling me to stop doing it.” Coach Spo may not love those risky efforts, but Jimmy Butler lives for them.
The next element to his stealing expertise is in the post. Yes, the post. Not many guys his size are known for their defensive abilities in the post against bigger players, but Butler is in a category of his own. He’s strong enough to stay with them and smart enough to become creative when he’s on an island with them.
In Miami’s switching scheme, he finds himself on centers all the time when Bam Adebayo rotates to the perimeter. When I asked Adebayo about that constant help mechanism, he said, “Whoever the weak side help is, probably will switch out, so it’s kind of like a triple switch.”
But to that point, it seems like that same mindset doesn’t occur when it’s Butler in the post. Those backside rotations stay put, knowing that Butler can handle his own on possessions like this:
No help in sight. Just Butler battling with him in the high post, then pulling the chair a bit to get positioning on the ball, which flipped up into the hands of Duncan Robinson.
Another theme shown on these steals is the offensive result: a three from Robinson. Defense to offense is a partial identity on this team, and even with the very relevant Adebayo defensive player of the year discussion, Butler has been on the forefront of generating offensive looks through disruption.
Yet another instance, except this time, Butler doesn’t let Nikola Vucevic get comfortable for one second in the post. His initial back-down turned into a pulled chair, and led to a Chicago Bulls turnover.
Although the headliner on these plays seem to be his use of the body, it’s actually the activity of his hands that make this possible.
Same spot, different player. Instead of allowing the entry pass, like he did against Vucevic, he went for pure denial on this possession. The bounce pass is made to Patrick Williams, and Butler reaches to his right to tip the ball away and obtain possession.
I don’t think some people understand the level of difficulty of that steal. Not jumping the entire pass to allow a possible layup opportunity with a spin, but keeps position and utilizes a long reach across Williams’ body to deny the pass.
A lot of these examples so far have been off-ball ones, which is interesting since Butler is known to be such a hounding on-ball defender on the perimeter. Well, here’s a quick refresher that he doesn’t skip a beat out there either:
White was about to flow into a double on-ball screen, but Butler applied the pressure before he even arrived at that second screener. One poke left, one gather right: cookies.
It’s just that simple when he gets put into those positions. Even though I’m harping on the result of a steal, it’s honestly just about the level of disruption he brings every play. That is what makes these types of plays possible, since the player has been getting pressed up the entire game, which is just Butler’s way of luring him into that thinking space.
Finally, the icing on the cake of Butler’s impressive stealing attributes: the unexpected double teaming. This has become as much of a staple for Butler as Andre Iguodala’s clean swipe downs. So, what makes this so elite?
A ton of actions are occurring on the strong side of the floor, leaving Adebayo and Butler on the weak side entry pass, which is exactly what you want if you’re Miami. But that’s not enough for Butler.
He makes a sprinting double toward the oblivious Naz Reid, and pokes it free, grabs it, and throws it down.
I asked Butler about these unexpected doubles, specifically the reasoning for him having so much success with them, and he responded, “I think you gotta look at who has the ball, right or left handed. What their skill-set is. And I guess some good timing and some timely gambles.”
One more thing that he left out after watching this play specifically is a great amount of instincts. If you were to ask me what one word describes Butler’s defensive tactics, I’d reply instinctive. Every single decision is made in the moment. On this play above, he seems locked in on Edwards with his body turned towards him, but darts across the floor right when he notices a slimmer of hope.
And that phrase is Jimmy Butler in a nutshell. All that he’s had his entire life is a slimmer of hope. And well, he’s taken that small amount and ran with it to become the player that he is today.