Injured Caron Butler Lurks as Potential Series-Changing Force for Mavericks in NBA Finals

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There's one player in these NBA Finals who's been linked to the Miami Heat longer than anyone. He was around before Dwyane Wade, before Udonis Haslem, and obviously before LeBron James and Chris Bosh.

In 2002, the year before the Heat drafted Wade and forever altered their franchise's history, they spent their lottery pick on Caron Butler. It's often forgotten, but Butler spent the first two years of his career down in South Beach. In 2004, it was a trio of promising youngsters — Butler, Wade and Lamar Odom — that led the Heat to the second round of the playoffs and a tough out against the Pacers.

Butler will always be linked to the Heat. But this week, he's got a chance to beat them.

Now a nine-year veteran, Butler has missed most of this season with a ruptured tendon in his right knee. It's a very serious injury. For most guys, a comeback wouldn't even be in the conversation. But most guys aren't nicknamed "Tough Juice," and most guys aren't in the position Butler's facing right now. He's 31 years old, he's played for four different NBA teams, and he's never been this deep in the playoffs before. This could be his one chance to win a championship.

Can he come back?

A patellar tendon injury is a painful one. But these are the Finals, and we've seen guys play with worse.

The Mavs stated earlier in this postseason he had no chance. But now a glimmer of hope is appearing. Butler's been seen at practices shooting around. He hasn't been medically cleared to play, but there's a chance that moment is right around the corner.

"He's a guy you never want to bet against," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle told the AP at Saturday's practice. "He's just one of those special guys. He's a month and a half, two months ahead of the rehab schedule for a normal human being. That shows the work he's put into it, the single-minded compulsiveness of his approach, how diligent he's been. It's been an inspiration to have him around."

It would be even better to have him playing. Butler averaged 15.0 points and 4.1 rebounds per game this season when healthy, starting 29 games. He'd be a game-changer offensively. He'd also do a lot on D, matched up with either LeBron or his old buddy D-Wade.

We've heard a lot in this series about X-factors — Miami's shooters, Dallas' bench mob, and the like. But the biggest series-changing development you could ask for would be a Butler return later in this series. Butler's been out for over five months, but if he comes back now, it's a whole new ballgame.

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