If you want twists and turns, drama and suspense, this Thunder-Grizzlies series is for you.
Think of all the crazy swings we’ve seen over the past two weeks.
Beno Udrih. Overtimes. Reggie Jackson. Buzzer-beaters that weren’t. Joey Crawford. Headlinegate.
The latest one: Zach Randolph has been suspended for Game 7 for punching Steven Adams in the jaw.
While that suspension might take the cake for series surprises, Caron Butler runs a close second. Thursday night in a must-win Game 6, Thunder coach Scott Brooks shocked everyone with the biggest strategic move of the series. Thabo Sefolosha was out. Butler was in. It was the first non-injury, non-trade adjustment that Brooks has made to his starting lineup since the 2008-09 season when Russell Westbrook took over for Earl Watson. If that seems like a million years ago, it’s because it was.
And just like the Westbrook-for-Watson swap, Butler-for-Sefolosha worked like a charm, too.
Even though Butler only scored seven points, he helped spread out the Memphis defense and open up lanes for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Those guys had more room to work, and the Thunder rolled.
Seems fitting that Butler has joined the series spotlight as the Thunder and the Grizzlies head to Game 7 on Saturday night. No one better personifies the unexpected twists of this series or the unbridled excitement of the Thunder Nation.
This guy is stoked to be in this place in this moment.
“It’s fun when you win,” he said, a twinkle in his eye. “I don’t know how many losses I experienced this season, but was a lot before coming over here to the Thunder.”
Butler started out the season in Milwaukee, his hometown, after the Bucks acquired him via trade. It was supposed to be a magical match, the hometown guy and the up-and-coming Bucks.
When the team officially introduced him, it did so at his old high school. It was such an emotional day that Butler broke down and cried during the press conference.
But then, the season began, and the Bucks went from up and coming to down and out. By the time the Bucks waived Butler in February, they had lost 45 games.
That’s how many regular-season games the Thunder lost total the last two seasons.
That was tough on Butler and, since coming to Oklahoma City, he’s made no secret of his happiness. Watch him on the court during games and you’ll often see him with a big smile on his face.
“Winning,” Butler said. “Winning does that.”
Still, that joy is refreshing to see. Lots of times in the NBA, a big play will bring out a scowl or a stare-down. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it sure does make a guy who plays with a little glee and elation stick out.
Of late, Butler has added a new bit of fun to his routine. When he hits a long shot, he’ll mimic dialing it up on an imaginary phone.
Who’s he calling?
He isn’t saying.
“It’s long distance,” he said, that twinkle back in his eye.
Now, don’t mistake happiness for softness. Butler, who survived a tough childhood, isn’t afraid to mix it up. After he thought James Johnson took an unnecessary swipe at his face in Game 6, Butler gave Johnson a what-the-heck-was-that poke in the back.
The two had to be separated.
“He loves basketball,” Durant said of Butler, then launched into a story.
The first road trip that Butler made with the Thunder was to Phoenix. Durant wanted to go to the gym and get in some work, so he texted a couple guys to see if they wanted to go along. Even though he didn’t know Butler well, something told Durant to give him a try.
“And he was the first guy downstairs to come work out with me,” Durant remembered. “He just loves to play, loves to be on the court. You can just tell.”
No doubt about that, and heading into Game 7, you can bet no one inside the ’Peake will be more stoked than Butler. He uses words like “rejoice” and “love” to describe how he feels on the court these days.
“I’m in a good place, great fit,” Butler said, “and I’m just extremely happy to be playing.”
Twists and turns have led to something grand.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.