The unquestionable top storyline of the Miami Heat’s 115-105 victory over the Atlanta Hawks in Game 2 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Tuesday was the two-way superstar performance from All-NBA wing Jimmy Butler — who had one of the best playoff games of his 11-year career.
Butler finished with a playoff career-high 45 points on 15-of-25 shooting and 4-of-7 from 3-point range, in addition to five rebounds, five assists, two steals and zero (!!!!) turnovers with a game-high plus-19 in the plus-minus category.
“Last night, I had a conversation with [P.J. Tucker] and he was telling me to go out there and score and make sure we win,” Butler told reporters after the game. “[Assistant coach Chris Quinn] did the same thing when I was getting shots up in our practice gym. I went out there and did just that.”
His 45-point outing was the third-most for a Heat player in the playoffs in franchise history, trailing only Dwyane Wade’s 46 in Game 4 of the 2009-10 first round meeting with the Boston Celtics and LeBron James’ 49 in Game 4 against the Brooklyn Nets in the East semis in 2013-14. It also gave him 66 points in the Heat’s first two playoff games — the most by a single Heat player in franchise history. The second-highest was James in 2013-14 — per Stathead — when he posted a combined 59 points against the Charlotte Hornets.
I did a little film deep-dive into his 45-point performance and here’s a few of things I noticed. For this, however, we’re just going to focus on his offense. His defense throughout the series deserves a separate piece in and of itself.
First off, for the second-straight game, Butler got the Heat on the board with a wing 3-pointer — because of course he does?
Since he’s arrived in Miami, Butler’s 3-point shot been puzzling. His 3-point shooting track record been the antithesis to the magic the Heat’s shooting doctors have assembled and crystalized that many of his teammates — including Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Caleb Martin and Duncan Robinson — have greatly benefitted from over time.
In his first eight seasons, Butler canned 34.1 percent of his 2.7 triple tries per game; in his three years since joining Miami, he’s yet to reach a 25.0 3-point percentage on just two attempts a game, operating more in the mid-range/low-post area. In a day and age where the space has grown and players are shooting more 3s than ever, Butler’s maneuvered closer to the rim at his own discretion, while still being one of the most impactful two-way stars across the NBA.
However, his shooting — for some reason — has tracked differently in the playoffs; the confidence, volume and percentages from distance have seen a considerable uptick.
Heading into Tuesday, Butler’s made 33.3 percent of his triples (2.3 attempts) in 26 playoff games with the Heat. That’s a marginally lower clip than his career playoff 3-point percentage (34.7 percent; 3.4 attempts), an 81-game sample size, which is equivalent to a full season’s worth.
It was evident again Tuesday. Butler made four of his seven triples, marking a new season-high and the most since May 13, 2021, when he netted all four of his 3s in a 12-point win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
I have a growing theory that when Butler has his legs under him and when he gets the most lift, he makes a much higher percentage of his jump shots regardless of the location.
The first trey in the clip above came over an outstretched DeAndre Hunter on a broken possession. Off the SLOB, Butler was initially looking to get downhill on the high pick-and-roll involving Dewayne Dedmon. Hunter does a pristine job fighting over the screen, cutting off Butler’s path. As soon as you blink, the ball’s in Vincent’s hands in the corner as the shot clock’s winding down.
Butler swaps spots with Robinson, catches the ball and, without hesitation, raises for a Robinson-esque 3-pointer that left Hunter with the “I can’t do anything about that” reaction. The second was just a simple pull-up transition 3 — courtesy of a Caleb Martin steal — over a noticeably backed-off Bogdan Bogdanovic, his second of nine second-half field goals that sparked a 16-4 Heat run over 3:18.
“Now that [Butler]’s shooting that three ball more confidently, it takes his game to another level,” Vincent remarked after the game.
“If you get in those pressure moments and the moments of truth, if you’re ever on the other side, would you ever want to give Dwyane Wade an open three? You would not because he’s a killer. He’s going to seize that moment,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Jimmy has a lot of those same qualities. Throw (the percentages) out when it becomes about winning. They’ll find a way to kill you. You can look at a scouting report and look at numbers, but that’s when [Butler and Wade will] kill you the most.”
For a majority of their five matchups that Butler’s played in this season, Hunter, Atlanta’s top wing defender by a sizable margin, has taken the Butler assignment. Here’s what I wrote in my series “Six matchups to look out for” story, where I previewed the Butler-Hunter dynamic.
Atlanta lacks quality wing defenders, but Hunter is their best one by far. Butler played in three of the four meetings against Atlanta, producing to a tune of 18.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game on 59.4 percent true-shooting. Hunter was lined up across Butler quite often; per NBA.com’s matchup tracking data, which can be a little shaky, Hunter was Butler’s primary defender on 84.8 partial possessions, the fourth-most for any Butler defender this season. Hunter limited Butler to 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting (1-4 3PT) and five assists, forcing two turnovers and rejecting one shot. If anyone’s going to spearhead Atlanta’s perimeter attack defensively, it’ll be Hunter — though he won’t be able to do it alone, either.
Hunter, who’s had laudable defensive flashes on Butler given his length and athleticism, surrendered a mere seven points on 28.2 partial possessions in Game 1, though Butler didn’t seem to attack mismatches as mercilessly because it wasn’t within the flow of the offense; given how much Miami’s offense was humming, it didn’t need it.
Tuesday read a slightly different story. When Hunter — who was in foul trouble throughout — wasn’t matched up on him, Butler was noticeably more aggressive hunting mismatches and taking advantages of inferior defenders when the situations presented themselves.
“I always just wanna play basketball the right way and do whatever it takes to help this team, this organization win,” Butler added after the game. “That’s why they brought me here and I did that tonight.”
Take this play, for example.
(Note: Please ignore whatever is happening between Kyle Lowry and Hunter here...lol).
Delon Wright gets cross-matched onto Butler this possession, who quickly calls for the empty-corner pick-and-roll with Bam Adebayo.
Adebayo emerges free as the roll man, but Butler has other ideas. He froze the Hawks’ drop defender, Onyeka Okongwu, with a hesitation dribble and blew by him for the reverse layup without any weakside help from Hunter.
That’s bad defense from Atlanta, but credit to Butler for recognizing the situation and attacking it without any second thought.
On this play, with Butler playing the 4 and PJ Tucker at the 5 with Adebayo and Dedmon both in foul trouble, we got a taste of a Lowry-Butler pick-and-roll combination to end the first half that featured rock solid spacing.
Trae Young did a good job fighting over the screen, forcing Lowry to feed Butler, the roll man. Getting Butler downhill in whichever way is usually an advantage for the Heat, but Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, the drop defender, recovers in-time to prevent Butler from getting deep into his roll.
With Vincent in the strong-side corner and Tucker stationed at the weak-side corner — Wright and Okongwu can’t help as much as one would with a weaker shooter stashed there. Wright opted to Vincent, rewarding Butler with enough corner spacing to attack the paint and power through Luwawu-Cabarrot for the and-1 finish.
Above was another semi-transition conversion over Bogdanovic. Though this time, Butler doesn’t settle for the 3-pointer. He dips his left shoulder into Bogdanovic’s chest, leveraging his strength to acquire a workable angle to get by him.
Kevin Huerter does little-to-nothing to help at the nail with Lowry spaced out at the wing, giving Butler a straight line to finish the contested layup over the fifth-year NBA veteran.
These are easy, low hanging fruit situations for Butler to attack — assuming he’s locked in. And he didn’t stop.
Here, Butler initially finds Lowry off the floppy set, though quickly receives the rock back with a slower-footed Danilo Gallinari lined up across him.
He uses Gallinari sagging off to his advantage: Butler shot fakes, dribbles once to the left, goes behind-the-back while subsequently flowing into a step-back to create further separation — which ultimately resulted in a fadeaway mid-range jumper, a Butler staple.
Needless to say, knocking down his jumper heightens Miami’s ceiling ten-fold because it will not just open up creases to the lane, but potentially open up shots for teammates nearby. Butler, at points, struggled throughout the season get his legs fully under him, which made it harder and harder to make essentially anything. Establishing the mid-range changes the equation when talking about how defenses will opt to defend Butler the further along we get into games and, potentially, series.
“Tonight was just elite-two-way basketball,” Spoelstra said about Butler. “He was terrific offensively. I just thought he was really assertive, he was making quick decision and we really needed that in the second half.”
As the game got closer and fans’ heartbeats grew louder, Butler made it an emphasis to hunt Young — a bad defender, though he did a decent job Tuesday — on the pick-and-roll for potential switches.
Above, Hunter does a good job ducking the Adebayo screen to isolate Butler at the right wing. This time, Butler-Lowry run an inverted pick-and-roll to try to get Young isolated onto Butler, though Atlanta opts to hedge it instead. Lowry does an excellent job flipping the screen in time to make Young cover more ground. Poor effort from Young coupled with Huerter refusing to stunt (again) with a shooter (Herro) in the corner, giving Butler a free runway for the two-handed jam.
The icing on the cake came at the most ideal time. Just gaze at this two-possession sequence from Butler:
Of course, it’s unrealistic to expect 40-point haymakers from Butler every night. That’s an unrealistic bar for any player not named LeBron James, let alone (playoff) Jimmy Butler.
But, somehow, the Heat have outscored the Hawks by 34 points over these first two games with its other three top players averaging fewer than 11 points per game. Bam Adebayo has averaged 7.5 points on 51.7 TS%; Kyle Lowry’s averaged 9.5 points on 52.2 TS%; Herro’s averaged 10.5 points on 44.2 TS%.
Against a volatile Hawks defense, that’s not going to cut it. Even though it’s a 1-8 seeding matchup, the Heat were relatively fortunate to escape Dade County up 2-0 given the aforementioned stat lines.
“He won the game for us tonight,” Lowry said of Butler after the game. “It’s a team game, but his effort on both ends was spectacular. 45 points in a playoff game and a Game 2 that we felt was a must win for us. It’s big time basketball from a big time basketball player, one of the best two-way players in the game.”
Not to say it’s impossible, but stronger scoring punches from Lowry — who’s made an impact with his playmaking and defense — Herro and Adebayo (who was in foul trouble) could help Miami sweep the series in the A, where Atlanta has won 20 of their last 23 games (including the play-in). But for now, relish the dominance that is 45 points from Butler, an NBA-playoff most so far this year.
“That’s also the beauty of our team” Spoelstra said. “It might be Tyler [Herro] the next game going down the stretch, it might be Kyle [Lowry] making big plays, it could be Bam [Adebayo] really stepping up and making a bunch of plays. That’s how our team is built and that’s how we’ve operated all season long. But Jimmy stepped up in a big way tonight on both ends of the court.
“[Butler]’s just a winner and he showed that tonight.”