In one of the more memorable images of the Western Conference finals, Oklahoma City forward Caron Butler celebrated a Game 3 three-pointer by forming his hand into the shape of a telephone — pinky serving as the mouthpiece, thumb as the receiver — and walked back down court.
Butler’s teammates mimicked the motion on the bench, with reserve Hasheem Thabeet hopping and strutting as the most excitable member of the bunch. “Just long distance, man,” Butler said. “Whenever we shoot a three, the young guys be joking it’s a long distance call.”
That would be the last three-pointer Butler hit in the series, which San Antonio won in six games to set up a Finals rematch with the Miami Heat beginning Thursday at AT&T Center. The 34-year-old Butler is confident that it won’t be the last time he dials up another three-pointer in the NBA.
“I don’t know,” Butler said when asked what he thought about his future. “I have to sit back and think about some things. It’s going to be a minute before I get over this one, though.”
Butler was the last member of the Wizards’ former all-star trio, which also featured Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison and led the franchise to its last playoff appearance in 2008 before John Wall and Bradley Beal inspired a run into the second round this season. Arenas hasn’t played in more than three years and Jamison quietly slipped away in February after negotiating a buyout from the Atlanta Hawks.
Dealt to Dallas four years ago in a move that began Washington’s rebuilding efforts, Butler is the only member of that trio to win a championship. But he never really found fulfillment with his previous ring. A right knee injury kept Butler from seeing action when the Dallas Mavericks beat the Heat in 2011 and he has desired ever since to be in a situation in which he could have a more prominent role in winning a title.
The hunger for that opportunity is what led Butler to Oklahoma City to conclude the wildest 10-month adventure of his career. He was traded from the Los Angeles Clippers to Phoenix last summer, in a move that appeared, at the time, to be a significant downgrade from a title contender to a rebuilding team. The Suns then traded Butler to Milwaukee, which at the very least gave the Racine, Wisc., native the chance to essentially play at home for the first time in 12 seasons.
Being home couldn’t compensate for the endless losing, so Butler negotiated a buyout and chose to sign on March 1 with the Thunder.
“It was attractive,” Butler said. “Looking at Russell [Westbrook], looking at Kevin [Durant] and those guys and just having the opportunity to fit in and play and play some productive minutes and I was able to do that and had a lot of fun.
“That’s one of the reasons I came here. High expectations,” he said. “An opportunity to go to the Finals and have a chance to win it all. We was two wins away from being on the big stage. Fell a little short. Real unfortunate, but life goes on.”
The decision to join the Thunder was startling because Butler spurned overtures from San Antonio and Miami. The Heat was considered a favorite since it was the team that drafted him 10th overall in 2002. Butler also is good friends with Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, but more importantly, the path to the Finals in the Eastern Conference would’ve provided the least resistance with only one other 50-win team. The West had seven.
“It’s tough, but at the same time, it’s part of life. You can easily go with the for sure thing with Miami in the Eastern Conference or you could go the hard way, where it’s going to be a little harder in the Western Conference,” Butler said. “That was my thing. I’ve never been a guy who took the easy route. So I knew it was going to be a great opportunity and you want to make a magic moment happen and be a part of history but we fell a little short.”
Butler didn’t play in the decisive overtime loss in Game 6 because Thunder Coach Scott Brooks went with a tighter rotation and rode the league’s most valuable player Kevin Durant for almost 52 minutes. But Butler had a few moments with the Thunder, averaging 9.7 points in 22 regular season games, starting two of the 19 games during its postseason run.
This offseason, Butler will have to ponder scenarios that he hasn’t ever had to consider. He will be a free agent for the third time in his career at an age when teams around the league are seeking younger, cheaper options. But Butler remains hopeful that he will field a few long distance calls from contending teams this summer.
“The need for your services and where you fit in best. Where you want to finish your career at,” Butler said, rattling off what he will focus on this summer. “A lot of things you got to look at and obviously you want to continue to win and play a role on this, so we’ll just have to see what happens.”