LOS ANGELES -- Caron Butler sat on a folding chair on the edge of the Los Angeles Clippers' practice court before the team departed for Memphis last week to open their first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies.
He couldn't stop smiling as he looked down at the court, his sneakers and his jersey. He was finally going to play in the postseason again. The Clippers' franchise had waited six long years to get back to the playoffs, but in Butler's mind, his road back to health and the postseason was just as arduous.
"I'm super excited. I'm healthy," he said last week. "That's one of the things I was really worried about throughout the course of the compacted season. I was working so hard religiously to get back onto the court for this moment and now here it is. I'm extremely excited. I'm trying to control my emotions. When we were going through some of the plays and some of the situations, I was just trying to hold it together, because I wanted to let it all out."
Last season, Butler, while playing for the Dallas Mavericks, suffered a ruptured right patellar tendon in January that knocked him out for the rest of the season and the playoffs. Butler was forced to watch from the sideline as the Mavericks went on to win the NBA title without him.
"That's what makes this run so special," Butler said. "I've waited all year to return to this point."
It looked as if Butler's return to the playoffs would be heartbreakingly short last Sunday during Game 1 when he fractured his left hand late in the third quarter when it got caught inside Rudy Gay's jersey. The official diagnosis was that Butler had fractured the fifth metacarpal in his left hand and would be out four to six weeks.
As Butler watched his teammates from the bench in Game 2, wearing a suit instead of a uniform as he did last season in Dallas, he couldn't help but have flashbacks to last season. This wasn't how Butler wanted to experience the playoffs again. There had to be some way, somehow, he could get back on the court. As Butler sat next to Chauncey Billups at the end of the game, he told Billups he was going to find a way a way to do it.
"He's risking something, but he's willing to risk that for the team and that's great," said Billups, who was lost for the season in February after rupturing his Achilles tendon. "He didn't want to sit out. Nobody would. This is what it's all about. This is why you play. And if you can go, then you have to go, and Caron did. He had to watch his team go all the way through the playoffs and win a championship without him last year and that was one of the deciding factors in him not wanting to watch that this year."
Butler has been called "Tough Juice" for years, and every NBA team he has been on has experienced a taste of why his nickname is so appropriate. In Washington he played with a labral tear of his left hip joint, and in Dallas, Butler was nearly cleared to play in the Finals after rehabbing his knee every day following surgery.
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and Butler were visibly moved as Carlisle described Butler's injury as Butler was presented with his championship ring in Dallas this season.
"That night, laying on the ground, he took his kneecap and shoved it about three inches back into place, stood up and walked off the court under his own power," Carlisle said. "At that point, that guy was a legend for life for me."
Butler showed the same kind of toughness to the Clippers on Friday when he walked onto the court at the Clippers' training facility in his warm-ups, wearing a soft protective cast and going through practice. After seeing a hand specialist in Los Angeles on Thursday, Butler told the team he would be ready to start on Saturday.
"Maybe we underestimated his toughness," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "Obviously, he has a fracture in his hand, but we're going to see if he can work through some of it. ... Caron is tough. He's a pro. He missed the playoff run last year and he wants to be a part of this. Obviously, it's a great time of year and he's such a big part of our team. The guy is tough. He's a battler."
Butler was the first player on the court for the Clippers nearly three hours before the start of Saturday's game and was cleared to play by the training staff. Before the game, Del Negro made sure to single out Butler and his toughness when addressing the team before they took the court.
"If he can fight with a broken hand," Del Negro said. "What can the rest of us do?"
Although Butler started, he played only 22 minutes, posting four points, three rebounds, one steal and one block in an 87-86 Clippers Game 3 win. It was far from his most productive game of the season, but it was easily his most inspiring, which wasn't lost on his teammates, who saw the pain Butler was going through in between plays and on the bench.
"He is crazy," Chris Paul said. "He is crazy, seriously. I talked to him yesterday in practice; his hand was wrapped up with a little contraption and found out that he was going to play. The first thing I thought was, 'What are you doing?' Man, I commend him because it would have been easy for him to say, 'I'm done, and I am going to take care of my hand and I will be ready for next year.' ... He didn't play so many minutes tonight, but his energy and his toughness is something that motivated the rest of us. That is unreal to see the pain he is going out there playing through."
Butler doesn't want the focus to be on him and his injury, so he has avoided talking to the media since the team returned back to Los Angeles. He left the training facility before it was open to the media Friday and sneaked out of the back of the locker room after Saturday's game, providing only a brief written statement.
"Being able to go out there and support my team is the most important thing to me," Butler said. "I can play through the pain if it means I can help us take the lead in the series."
Although Paul, who finished with a game-high 24 points and 11 assists, will be credited with leading the Clippers to their first playoff win at home in six years, he was quick to credit Butler with being the true catalyst behind the team's inspired play.
"Caron is the true meaning of the word 'vet,' in all aspects of it," Paul said. "The way he talks to you during the game; in the fourth quarter he came up to me and said, 'Take us home.' His energy and just being around the league; he knows what's going on, and it's something I love."