With just over a minute remaining and the Miami Heat up seven in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, Jimmy Butler rose up and rattled home a dagger 3-pointer to officially bury the Boston Celtics.
“Gooooooooood!” TNT’s Kevin Harlan belted out. “Jimmy Frickin’ Butler!”
Jimmy. Fricken. Butler.
It was one of the great calls by one of the great play-by-play voices punctuating yet another breathtaking moment delivered by one of the greatest playoff performers of a generation. There aren’t three better words, though I’ll do my best to come up with a handful more, to illustrate what Butler turns into come playoff time. The guy is something else.
Butler, who’s now averaging 31.5 points per game over Miami’s magical postseason run, did it again on Wednesday, becoming the first player in NBA history to record at least 35 points, six assists and six steals in a conference finals game, and just the sixth to do it in any playoff game.
After the game, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was asked, effectively, to quantify the belief that Butler breathes into an eighth-seeded Miami team that absolutely nobody picked to even get out of the first round, let alone be up 1-0 after stealing home-court in the conference finals.
“You can’t quantify it,” Spoelstra said. “There’s no analytic to it. Just the feeling of stability in the locker room. … There’s just a settling effect that is impossible to quantify.”
In some sense, this is what we’re all trying to do. Quantify a player who seems impossible, for whatever reason, to fully appreciate until he hits you across the face with his playoff production. And even then it doesn’t necessarily feel right to put his name in the same sentence as the game’s true giants. Why not?
“A lot of people are asking themselves that same question,” a Western Conference scout laughed when I asked him what it is about Butler’s game that is still catching us off guard, even as we’ve seen the same postseason movie play out time and again. “But the numbers are the numbers, man. He’s a winner. You can’t argue with the success he’s had, really everywhere he’s been, but especially in Miami where he is surrounded by shooters and can just concentrate on getting into the paint. It’s a great fit for him.”
Butler and Miami have been described as a match made in basketball heaven from the second he showed up in 2019. I remember sitting at his introductory press conference, where Pat Riley called him a top-10 player in the league, and thinking, genuinely, that Riley was crazy to think Butler, as a lone true star, was enough for the Heat to compete for titles.
Three conference finals and one NBA Finals appearance later, and the only person who looks crazy is me — and every other person who, whether they’ll admit it or not, has consistently underrated just how great Jimmy Freaking Butler is when it comes to the games that really matter.
It’s easy to romanticize Butler’s basketball story. Junior college guy. Last pick of the first round. Played eight minutes a game in his rookie year. Defensive specialist who willed himself into an All-Star. Ask pretty much anyone what makes Butler so great and you’ll invariably hear about his rabid competitiveness, the proverbial chip that still, after all his success, resides squarely on his shoulder. A dog, as basketball guys reverently refer to their most respected brethren. Jimmy Butler is a dog.
And yet, this, it would seem, is why it’s so easy to undersell Butler’s superstar status, even as he’s making second-team All-NBA. Because 22 ppg, as he averaged in the regular season, doesn’t get your attention. Because for lack of one marketable skill that stands out as elite — he’s not a great shooter, he isn’t an otherworldly ball handler, his passes aren’t flashy, and most fans don’t care about defense as much as they like to claim — we lazily attribute the bulk of his success to intangibles, to toughness, as if this guy is averaging over 31 ppg in the playoffs on sheer grit, by simply wanting it more than the next guy.
This is where we all have it wrong. Jimmy Butler is a sublimely talented basketball player. That may seem like an obvious statement, but it’s not one stated enough. Steph Curry was overlooked his whole life, too. Wasn’t even recruited by a major college. He’s not who he is because he has a chip on his shoulder. He’s who he is because he shoots and handles the leather off of the ball. For Butler, a player perceived as this hard, bare-knuckle baller, there’s a great irony in what makes him great.
“He’s actually a really soft player,” the same scout told me, and it was a high compliment. “Think about it, you never see him just putting his head down and barreling to the bucket out of control. He’s methodical. He gets in the lane at his own pace, he plays off of two feet. You look at all his spins and pump fakes, his footwork, his touch around the rim, it’s all super soft. Nothing is forced. Even though there’s a lot of force behind what he’s doing. He’s going to get you on his hip and ride you. He’s going to put his shoulder into you and separate. But it’s more subtle than you would think. He’s strong enough to get to his spots with a little nudge. He’s a lot like Kawhi Leonard in that way.”
The other thing the scout pointed out to me, which I found to be really interesting, is that Butler doesn’t need to beat his defender to create leverage. “He just has to be even with his defender. If he can just do that, he has the creativity to get his shot off so many ways. Whether it’s a bunch of pump fakes or a fade away or just going up through the contact, it’s not enough to just stay in front of him. He is still going to be patient enough to eventually get the space he needs.”
Butler insists there is nothing to this whole “Playoff Jimmy” narrative. In one sense, he’s right. All of these skills that we’re talking about, it’s not like they only show up in May. Butler scored 131.6 points per 100 shots attempts during the regular season, per Cleaning the Glass, the top mark among all forwards. He registered near the top of every advanced stat. Top five in steals. Third in total clutch points. Seventh in free-throw attempts.
In another sense, Butler clearly goes into a different, more assertive mode in the playoffs, where he’s taking over 20 shots per game against fewer than 14 in the regular season with an appreciably higher usage rate. And he’s not wasting any time in setting this aggressive tone — leading the playoffs with 11.7 first-quarter points per game and registering at least 10 first-quarter points in seven of his 11 playoff games so far.
Since 1995, Butler is one of just six players to record at least 25 points in 10 straight playoff games. The other five are Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Shaquille O’Neal. The Heat are 10-2 in the last 12 playoff games in which Butler has played, including three consecutive Game 1 road wins over Milwaukee, New York and now Boston.
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And yet we insist on continuing to characterize Butler, and perhaps by extension this Heat team, as an underdog. ESPN analytics gave Miami a 3% chance to beat Boston in this series. Three percent. They registered, prior to the start of the conference finals, as the clear long shot among the final four teams at +1200 to win the championship.
Perhaps it’s time we stop doing this and just accept that the Heat are for real because of their culture and their coaching, yes, but mostly because they have Butler, who Spoelstra called on Wednesday, “One of the premier, if not the premier two-way basketball players in this association.”
There was a time when I would’ve argued that assertion. But I’ve decided to stop being dumb. Butler has long proven, and continues to prove, that his name belongs on the league’s marquee. Enough with all the blue-collar, hard-working romance. It’s not to dismiss those qualities in Butler, but this guy is spectacularly skilled. That gets lost, or at least glossed over, way too easily.
Say it with me: Jimmy Butler is a superstar. No disrespect to Spo, but drop the “two-way” qualifier. That’s the tag we like to stick on guys we don’t really want to put into the top tier. Save that for Paul George or Jrue Holiday. This is Jimmy Frickin’ Butler we’re talking about. And it’s high time that we start putting the highest order of respect on that name.