He almost salvaged things down the stretch.
First he drained a pull-up 3 in Marcus Smart’s face with less than two minutes left in the game. Then he (finally) took the ball strong to the hoop and finished through contact for an and-1.
And then there were the three free throws he drilled with just three seconds left on the clock and his team trailing by two.
Those last three points gave Jimmy Butler 15 in the fourth quarter and 24 on the night. He added 11 rebounds and eight assists. It’s a great-looking stat line. And if not for a miraculous, barely-buzzer-beating putback from Boston Celtics guard Derrick White, one giving the Celtics a 104-103 Game 6 victory Saturday in Miami, those free throws would have sent the Heat to the NBA Finals.
Instead, they’re now just one loss away from becoming the first team in NBA history to fumble away a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven series.
But the end-of-game burst doesn’t make up for Butler’s performance through the game’s first 45 minutes. Because in those minutes, Butler was awful.
After the game, he addressed his teammates in the locker room.
“I told (them),” he said during his postgame press conference, “‘If I play better, we’re not even in this position.'”
Butler’s right, but the question now is can he fix things for Game 7. Because it wasn’t just that he misfired on 16 of his 21 field-goal attempts in Game 6. Even the best of the best of the best endure rough shooting nights. It was his demeanor, and the way his cold shooting (he began the game 1-for-7) seemed to derail him.
He stopped attacking the hoop, even when he had slighter defenders isolated in space. He seemed to pump fake any time he approached the rim, instead of going up strong. There were times when he caught the ball in the middle of the floor and never even turned to the hoop.
Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra seemed to lose some confidence in his star, too.
Not only were the Heat running offense for Duncan Robinson down the stretch, but before their final possession, TNT broadcaster Stan Van Gundy said he could hear Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra call out to Butler, “Do you want it?”
It’s hard to imagine even having to consider posing such a question to Butler earlier this postseason.
What should really concern the Heat is that Butler’s Game 6 performance was the continuation of a trend, not a fluke. He was just 5-for-13 in Game 3. He had just 16 points in Game 4 and just 14 in Game 5. He’s hit just 37% of his shots over the last four games.
To be fair, Butler doesn’t look 100 percent, and seems to have no confidence in his ability to get off the floor. The Celtics also deserve credit. They’ve made a point of getting into Butler’s chest, staying down on his pump fakes and sliding over to help from the weak side. The length of Robert Williams III has bothered Butler on numerous drives. But let’s not forget how dominant Playoff Jimmy was for the past month. This was a player who through the first two-and-a-half rounds of the playoffs had been playing at a level that no scheme could contain. And yet, over the past four games, that relentless, soul-snatching, weakness-hunting vampire that had taken out the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and left Giannis Antetokounmpo contemplating the meaning of failure has disappeared.
“Jimmy leads with everything — his spirit, his soul, his competitive nature,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters before the game.
Which was exactly why it’s fair to lay the blame for the Game 6 loss at his feet. Until the very end, that competitive nature was nowhere to be found.
That doesn’t mean Miami is cooked. This Celtics team has already proven that it is vulnerable, especially at home, where they’re 5-5 so far this postseason.
But the Heat will only be able to avoid making the wrong type of history if Playoff Jimmy shows up.
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.