MINNEAPOLIS — Jimmy Butler wants Timberwolves fans to know one thing. He loves the fact you can’t stand him. He loves to hear you boo him. Your anger toward him has turned into his fuel and the more you express your displeasure the bigger his smile.
So for those whose boos turned into cheers as Butler scored a game-high 33 points in a 131-123 victory over Cleveland on Friday at Target Center in the Wolves’ home opener, well, to him you’re nothing more than predictable.
“I knew (that) was going to happen,” Butler said. “I knew they were going to switch up on me. … I knew as soon as I made an effort play it was going to turn into cheers. I like it though. Like I told you, it’s OK to boo me. I’m still going to play hard, I’m still going to try my best to help win games. Boos, cheers, silence, I’ve got a job to do and that’s to play hard and try to win.”
Butler has made a heel turn that would make a professional wrestler jealous. Butler might be happier once the Wolves grant him his wish and ship him out of town — although his performance on Friday night is exactly why coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau is dragging his feet on moving the All-Star — but, for now, he appears to be absolutely giddy about playing the villain role.
On Sunday, Butler said he expected Wolves fans to boo him before the home opener. The announced sellout crowd of 18,978 did not disappoint. Butler was the first Wolves starter introduced beforehand and as he made his way onto the court the crowd let him have it. Thibodeau also got a loud, although brief, chorus of boos directed at him. Former Wolves star Kevin Love, who was traded to Cleveland four years ago after forcing his way out of town, was a distant third when it came to hearing the wrath of the crowd.
“That’s the NBA, he loves it,” Thibodeau said of Butler. “The important thing is to get the win, and I think the one thing with fans is there’s going to be an appreciation for a guy who puts forth that type of effort. He plays hard on every play, and I think there’s an appreciation for that.”
The jeers for Butler turned into cheers in the second quarter when Tyus Jones fed him for an alley-oop dunk that gave the Wolves a 41-34 lead with 9 minutes, 51 seconds remaining in the half. Butler heard more cheers with 6:13 left in the quarter when Derrick Rose fed him for a dunk to make it 53-41. Butler had 12 points (5-for-6 shooting), four rebounds and two steals as the Wolves took a 71-54 lead into halftime.
Butler, however, saved his best for the final quarter. With the Cavaliers trying to rally after trailing 104-95 after three quarters, Butler played all 12 minutes and scored 15 points. Still not in game shape after missing training camp, Butler fell to the floor at one point in the quarter and remained there as the Cavaliers went the length of the court in trying to rally.
“I’m always going to play hard,” Butler said. “That’s my talent. I’m not the best shooter, I’m not the best ball handler, but just play hard. I think if you play hard you can cover up a lot. You do you’re tired, I will tell you that. But all in all, you play hard, you’ve got a chance to win.”
Asked how he was feeling at the moment he was lying on the floor, Butler said: “Tired. Everybody knew that. T-Lue (Cavs coach Tyronn Lue) even knew that, asked if I was OK and I appreciate him for that. But, yeah, I’m winded a little bit. It’s OK, it will come with time.”
How much of that time will be with the Wolves? If Thibodeau has anything to say about it, Butler will be here for many months but that isn’t supposed to be part of the plan. “It’s unbelievable, all the things that he does,” Thibodeau said. “Getting to the free-throw line, making big shots, the steal that he had (in the fourth quarter that gave the Wolves an 8-point lead) was an unbelievable play and was great anticipation. Read the play great and that’s the difference between winning and losing right there.”
Butler said he did not hear the scattered MVP chants that were directed at him — only the boos.
“I’m telling you I love it, I love it,” Butler said. “I think people kind of love to hate me sometimes, say whatever you want to say, but it really makes me smile. (No matter what) people think about me, you’ve got to respect my effort. You may not like me, that’s OK. But as long as you know that my mind and my heart is in the right place, and I do everything to win, and I’ll do anything for my guys, I’m cool. Boo me, hate me, just don’t throw nothing at me because now you’re doing something different.”
Butler made it clear no one had thrown anything at him on Friday. He also said the media and fans don’t know the entire story about his situation, which began with a trade demand that either came four days after the Wolves’ season ended last spring or in mid-September. That all depends on if you believe Butler or Thibodeau.
“You can hate me because you read what you see in the media but you really don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “So until you talk to me about it, and I decide to tell the media so you all can write a story and fabricate everything, they won’t ever know. I’m OK with it. I am who I am, you’re allowed to dislike me, but you can’t say I’m a bad person and I don’t play to win. That’s all that matters. You can judge me by what you read in the media, but until you know me and know where my heart is, just keep booing me.”
So, Jimmy, is there anything you want to clarify in this situation? “No, zero,” he said. “I’m OK. I’ll be OK.”
Are there things we don’t know? “Yeah, of course. You all don’t get the juicy parts of the story,” Butler said. “The part that you do get, you all do a great job of making me seem like the bad guy, by the way. But it is what it is.”
The reality is what this has become is a situation that Butler loves. He’s playing everybody these days. His head coach, his teammates, his owner, the fans, the media. Every last one of us has become a pawn in Butler’s game and shame on anyone who doesn’t realize this.
“I love Thibs,” Butler said when asked if Thibodeau was the actual bad guy in this story. “Everybody knows that. There’s no denying that’s my guy. I’m going to go out and compete for him and compete for the guys in this locker room. No matter what, Minnesota, if you all boo me I’ll continue to compete.”
And play us all like puppets.