The NBA’s Eastern Conference, oft-maligned as inferior to the West, is very stout with its top six this season. The order at the moment is the runaway Milwaukee Bucks, followed by Toronto, the surprising defending champ, and then Boston, Miami, Indiana and Philadelphia.
On Monday night, Florida’s regional sports network had an excellent main event: Philadelphia at Miami.
The 76ers have been playing without Josh Richardson recently, his second disruption by injury this season. The Heat has been playing without Justise Winslow for weeks.
Also for the Heat, James Johnson has been on the outs most of the season, and the talented-but-goofy Dion Waiters has been suspended three times.
No problem. The Heat has Jimmy Butler. And with his all-around play and leadership of a young team, the Heat is 34-15, following Monday’s 137-106 blowout of the 76ers.
Butler had 20 points in a highly competitive first half, poured in a few more down the stretch and finished with a season-high 38 points. Humorously after the game, Butler said the ball was going in the basket so well for him (14 of 20) that he felt “like Luka,’’ as in Dallas’ Doncic.
Miami basketball fans love Jimmy, and why not? The Heat is headed back to the playoffs after a 39-43 flop in 2018-19. And, Butler is headed back to the All-Star Game after last season’s miss – the tormented campaign split between the Timberwolves and the 76ers.
He wanted out of Philly, as he wanted out of Minnesota more loudly, to the point that he (allegedly) turned down the 76ers’ offer of a five-year, $190 million maximum deal, to wind up with a four-year, $142 million deal in Miami.
This came after a four-team trade last July 6, where Richardson wound up in Philly, Jimmy wound up in Miami, with other pieces moving hither and yon. One of those was Meyers Leonard, a 7-foot center and seven-year backup in Portland.
A key part of the deal for the Heat was getting rid of Hassan Whiteside at the same time it was bringing in Butler. The over-and-under for wins in sports books before the season was 43.5 for the Heat. And that based on having Winslow, a 6-foot-6 forward and solid contributor.
Now, the Heat’s victory total will be in the 50s, and Butler and young Bam Adebayo are among the East’s 12 All-Stars. The other starters are Leonard and two undrafted producers: Kendrick Nunn, a rookie, and Duncan Robinson, with only 15 games played entering this season.
That leaves no mystery as to how Butler quickly has become a hero in south Florida. Speaking of which: The Heat also has Tyler Herro, a three-point shooter from Kentucky, and the No. 13 selection in the 2019 draft.
Which was two spots after the Timberwolves were scheduled to draft, but they chose to trade up to No. 6 to draft a non-shooter in Jarrett Culver.
We can only imagine the glee that has been added to Butler’s life since last Thursday:
Going to the All-Star Game, taking his man Bam with him, making shots “like Luka’’ against the team he ended the previous season, and with this as the kicker -getting to read the hallucinatory quotes from his Wolves’ rival, Karl-Anthony Towns, about not making the West’s All-Star squad.
“I’m desensitized to being disrespected in this league,’’ Towns said. “I’ve been disrespected since I came in. It’s nothing new when I didn’t see my name up there.
“When you’re a person who’s been disrespected like me so much, it’s something you expect honestly. You’re kind of shocked when you do get it.’’
On Saturday, Butler scored 24 in the Heat’s 102-89 victory at Orlando. Monday, he had those 38 in 29 minutes against the 76ers. He also defended mightily, rebounded and passed.
It’s shocking that Butler was able to play in either of these games. It can’t be easy to play NBA games with a split gut, which is what Jimmy had to have from howling in laughter when he saw KAT’s quotes on disrespect.
I mean, Rodney Dangerfield made a comedic career out of jokes on the subject, but nothing Rodney ever said on disrespect was funnier than last week’s self-pity from KAT.
And if that quote wasn’t enough of a belly buster for Jimmy, he can always look up KAT’s team in the standings, go to the “Streak’’ column and see, “L-12.’’