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Butler, Heat too good for Young’s Hawks

Miami’s best player has imposed his will on this series while Atlanta’s best player has struggled.

NBA: Playoffs-Atlanta Hawks at Miami Heat Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

How do you know things are going great for the Miami Heat?

When there’s a “Let’s go Heat” chant taking place at the opposing team’s home arena.

And it sounds even better when it’s an NBA Playoff game.

The Miami Heat ripped the hearts of the Atlanta Hawks and their playoff aspirations in Game 4 of both teams’ first-round series with a dominant 110-86 victory Sunday night, to take a 3-1 chokehold in their best-of-7 series.

Miami now has the opportunity to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals with a win on Tuesday at the FTX Arena, possibly to the music of Pepas. A successful closeout would also provide Miami’s fans an opportunity to witness a series victory live for the first time since the Heat beat the Charlotte Hornets in round one of their playoff series back in 2016.

Six years. It’s been a while. Dwyane Wade was still on that team.

Making up for a rather forgettable choke job to conclude Game 3, a Kyle Lowry-less Miami squad played classic Heat playoff basketball for another chance to add to the #Heatin5 collection.

The final score might seem like Miami enjoyed an offensive explosion, which isn’t surprising for a team that raced to the top seed of their conference and ranked twelfth in regular season offensive rating, but Sunday’s triumph over Atlanta had more to do with the Heat’s impeccable defense – particularly on Trae Young – and another masterful performance by Playoff Jimmy Butler.

Let’s get this out of the way: Atlanta does not have the best player in this series.

They never did.

Young is a great player, but he isn’t better than Butler.

The Hawks were hot early thanks to their outside shooting, but Miami played the game to their pace and placed an emphasis on taking care of the ball with 0 giveaways in the first 24 minutes.

The Heat’s shooting was pedestrian in the first 18 minutes, though it was surprising that Atlanta built a lead which only stretched to no more than 8. It felt like the Hawks were floating along before Miami’s inevitable progression to the mean.

True enough, it was unavoidable. Miami’s 26-4 run to end the first half was sparked by aggressive drives from Bam Adebayo and Gabe Vincent, who filled in admirably for Lowry (hamstring). Then, the Butler takeover started.

At his best, Butler is cerebral with his offensive approach. Rarely does an NBA player in 2022 manage to remain effective on offense without a reliable long-range jumper, but Jimmy makes it look easy. Why? Because he’s creative with the way he puts points on the board.

Butler has that almost LeBron-like quality where you look at the box score and get surprised that he already has 11 or 14 points. That’s what quiet, effective, and physical scoring will do for you.

He can steal a pass off an inbound and convert against bigger bodies for an and-one. He can back-down defenders in the post and rise for midrange jumpers, almost like dancing to his own song. He’s got superb footwork in the paint, staying balanced with his pivots to score underneath the out-stretched arms of opposing bigs. When the defense crashes on him in the paint, he’s a willing passer. Given Miami’s plethora of long-range snipers, it’s almost like the opposition is in a “pick-your-poison” situation.

“Our hearts are in the right place and it’s pure. Because, we’re trying to figure out a way to win and do it the right way,” he said post-game.

Butler finished with 36 points on 12-of-21 shooting, including 11-of-12 from the foul line and even 1-of-2 from deep. He now leads all players in the 2022 NBA Playoffs in scoring. How’s that for a team that supposedly doesn’t have any superstars? He also recorded 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals, and 0 turnovers. For someone who had a 32.2% usage rate, a game-high for both teams’ rotation players, that’s marvelous.

Victor Oladipo also deserves praise. The game changed when Erik Spoelstra finally inserted the former two-time All-Star midway through the second period. It’s no accident that Oladipo finished a +28 in 23 minutes.

“It’s not impressive to me,” Butler said of his teammate. It’s expected, because I see him do it every single day.”

And not that it was ever any question, but whatever reported beef there is between the two should be squashed.

Oladipo fit in seamlessly with Miami’s switch-everything scheme against Young and the Hawks’ collection of shooters, showing glimpses of the player who once made the NBA First-Team All Defense.

Though his outside shot wasn’t falling in (0-5), he was still aggressive attacking the lane, displaying that shifty burst of speed that made him a team’s first option on offense less than five years ago. He also has an underrated ability to make spur-of-the-moment decisions to pass out to shooters or cutting teammates when it seems like he’s going to attempt a basket near the rim, baffling both the defense and viewers.

Butler himself was the recipient of a few easy hand-offs in the fourth quarter. It looks like their chemistry on the court is just as good off it.

“I’m used to it. I’m always the bad guy,” Butler joked about the rumors. “That’s okay. Bad guys are welcome here in the Miami Heat organization, but I love my guys.”

Young has been through hell and back this series. Outside of his game-winner in the last contest, he’s been limited by a Heat defense that has guys who are ready to switch and guard him man-to-man or provide help from the strong side, while also able to recover back to their initial assignments, or rely on weakside rotational help.

The Heat are making him a passer, but not necessarily one who uses the gravity his abilities demand to create for others, but rather someone who has no choice but to hand the ball to a teammate who then has to start their offensive possession from scratch with the shot clock winding down.

On the other end, the Heat are taking every opportunity to get him matched-up against anyone on their roster. Butler has torched him repeatedly. Vincent isn’t hesitating to uncork from long range when Trae is right in front of him. Even PJ Tucker is bullying Young in the post.

“We’re playing great basketball. We’re getting stops,” Butler said.

“Tuck’s a champion and he knows I want to be a champion as well.”

What else is crazy is that Miami could have played even better.

Max Strus shot only 4-of-16 from the field. Caleb Martin, Tyler Herro, and Oladipo combined to shoot 5-of-24. That trio won’t be that collectively cold from the field a second straight game.

The Heat knocked in only 43.5% of their attempts, including 31% from downtown. That they can win comfortably despite having those shooting splits should be discouraging for a Hawks side who if not for an opportunistic rally in game 3 might already be clearing up their lockers for the season right now.

Miami has made it clear they’re the better team. That’s likely still the case without Lowry, whose leadership is enamoring even when he isn’t in the active line-up.

“Tonight, was a good one,” Butler said, “but there’s another one to get.”

And then a few more after that.

3 down, 13 to go.