There’s been a new look to Jimmy Butler since the playoffs began. Have you noticed it? It’s beyond the usual smug confidence that’s justified by his hard work and voraciousness. This one takes it a notch higher. Almost like there’s an understanding of the gravity of the task at hand; a recognition of how important it is to precariously balance quiet confidence with loud intensity through actions a superstar of his class must take when the stakes are this high.
Also: the ability to lay the smackdown when you’re supposed to.
Yes, Playoff Jimmy has arrived for the Miami Heat. And boy, is he spectacular.
The Butler, Miami’s megastar and best player, who saved this franchise from purgatory three years ago, provided a neat reminder of how far up he can take his game when “winning time” never feels more significant, and why the money that’s paid to him is worth every penny.
In Miami’s Game 2 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday, Jimmy finished with 45 points on 15-of-25 shooting to go with 5 rebounds, and 5 assists. He didn’t turn the ball over a single time, nor did he foul once. He was a +19 when he was on the court, an unanswerable force that obliterated an Atlanta defense so focused on the shooters who sniped them in Game 1 that they provided Butler the stage to give Hawks fans nightmares for years to come.
Who did Butler join in the list of Heat players to score 45 with 5 dimes and boards? LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. That’s damn good company to be with.
“He’ll find a way to kill you,” Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra said post-game. He’s right. Beyond the goofy pranks, dominoes obsession, coffee-making ambition, and fun-loving demeanor, Butler is a basketball assassin who at his best can take over competitions, along with the best players this sport has to offer. We know this because we’ve seen it in the past and we’re seeing it anew.
“I think you have to have that dark side and kind of that demeanor to push other people to be better,” Kyle Lowry said of his best friend afterwards.
If Butler joined the “dark side” Tuesday night, then he sliced Atlanta down in a way that would make Darth Vader proud.
The sample size of two games is understandably small, but this is the best Butler has looked since Miami’s dominant run in Orlando.
For transparency, Jimmy said, “I’m not as ball-dominant as I was in the bubble. We got a point guard, and that’s Kyle, and I love him being a point guard.”
Lowry’s presence takes playmaking responsibilities off Jimmy’s shoulders and allows him to prioritize scoring capabilities on nights he’s got it going. PJ Tucker, Miami’s glue guy at the 4, reminded Jimmy the evening before Game 2 to be aggressive looking for his shot. Boy, did he ever. Dared by Atlanta to hurt them as a playmaker in Game 1, Butler obliged, helping yield 18 3-pointers courtesy of the Heat’s array of shooters. In Game 2, the Hawks flipped the script, but Butler reigned superior anyway.
The confidence he’s showing in his outside stroke is a remarkable turnaround from a regular season where he shot 23% from deep. He’s now 5-of-8 in this best-of-7 series. The balance with his jumper looks better, landing on the same spot where he jumped from. There’s a consistency in the way his right wrist flicks and his left palm stays glued when he releases the ball. There’s more of an arc compared to the flat-line drives he used to attempt. He also slows down as he’s about to gather and go up for a triple compared to exploding in the air and launching the ball like a rocket at the peak of his jump.
Shout-out to Chris Brickley for the work he’s put in on improving Butler’s weak point.
But it’s not just the deep balls that are working wonders. He’s knocked in a couple of mid-range jumpers in this series, some of them the classic side-step pull-up that other top-tier shooters in the league consistently show. His cuts to the rim are terrific, catching defenders by surprise when their heads are turned. He’s mismatch hunting in pick-and-roll (more on this later). His bounce is back, unsurprising given the extended rest he got after the Heat’s penultimate regular season game.
As Max Strus, who scored 14 points and had 4 assists, said: “We got Jimmy Butler on our team. It’s really as simple as that.”
Tough as it might be for casual NBA observers who barely watch games outside of the teams in Los Angeles, New York, or other major markets might believe, having Jimmy Butler on your team is often enough to come out victorious.
“Just equally as impressive as his offense, he did some amazing things defensively,” Spoelstra said.
And that’s what makes Butler more commanding compared to other star players in the NBA today. Pair his attention to detail on defense with his potential to takeover games on offense and you have undoubtedly one of the 10 best players in the league.
The series is far from over, even if Miami looks like the clear favorite. The Hawks, who ranked second in the NBA in regular season 3-point shooting, have hit only 22-of-76 (29%) from deep this series. Trae Young in particular has gone 2-of-17. Atlanta is 20-3 on their home floor since the second week of January. History has proven that role players – in this case for the 8-seed, Kevin Huerter, Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Andre Hunter, and company – play better at home.
Atlanta had a chance to tie Game 2 with a little under three minutes remaining despite playing far from their standard of a “great performance.” That’s an encouraging sign for a team which just last playoffs made the conference finals.
Miami would counter with this: through two games, Bam Adebayo, who had COVID last week, Tyler Herro, and Lowry have shot only 18-of-49 (37%) from the field. Like Atlanta’s 3-point shooting, conventional wisdom says those shooting numbers will progress to the mean. Bam and Tucker also dealt with foul trouble on Tuesday that likely won’t duplicate in back-to-back contests.
All Miami needs to do is win one game on the road – teams who go up 3-1 in the first-round advance nearly 96% of the time – and they’ll be one step closer to the second round.
And when all else fails, they have Butler, who seems to have a target in mind when he needs to score. For as disruptive as Trae is against the opposition, he’s also a walking mismatch for the opponent on the other end:
The Hawks are taking every measure to avoid Young from switching on to Butler in pick-and-rolls. That slight delay for Jimmy’s initial defender to recover paired with Trae’s, what was it, “Olé” defense, is detrimental to the Hawks – especially if Young can’t balance it out on the other end.
The series is beginning to get really chirpy. Young is essentially asking the referees for more calls in post-game pressers. There’s still the question of a possible Clint Capela return, which would help Young’s interior playmaking.
There are more chapters to be written about this battle and the entertainment value is only expected to shoot up. After all, it’s not a series “until a road win team wins.”
But in Game 2, as Ian Eagle eloquently explained, “it [was] the Jimmy Butler show tonight in South Florida.”
Damn right it was.
Two down, fourteen to go.