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Jimmy Butler dominated the first two rounds, but a harsher challenge awaits

Butler was one of the league’s most productive players in the first two rounds, but perhaps his toughest challenge since joining Miami awaits.

Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Six Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The Miami Heat dispatched the Philadelphia 76ers in six games in the second-round of the 2022 NBA playoffs.

The NBA playoffs, like every other major playoff setting, requires players’ peak performances. Several players — most notably Michael Jordan and LeBron James, regarded as two of the greatest players to ever step on the hardwood — have assembled outstanding playoff moments, games and series that will ultimately define their legacy when it’s time to eventually hang up the curtain.

Miami’s Jimmy Butler hasn’t necessarily offered career-defining moments these playoffs, but that hasn’t stopped Butler from dominating the first two rounds of the 2021-22 NBA playoffs, being one of the league’s most productive players.

Butler gone toe-to-toe with the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic — among others — for the most resounding impact through two rounds. He’s averaging 28.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists and a league-leading 2.1 steals per game through 10 playoff games.

It’s not just the counting numbers that have stood out. Butler is shooting a remarkable 52.5 percent from the floor — which would be a career-high and the first time he’s ever eclipsed the 50.0 percent threshold, if the playoffs ended today — and a mindboggling 36.4 percent from distance on 4.4 triple tries per game. To a league-average 3-point shooter, that’s not a resonating figure, but for Butler — who’s netted a ghastly 24.0 percent of his 3s since joining Miami, including a career-low 23.3 percent (on 2.0 attempts) this season — it is.

“I didn’t know how good Jimmy was until I got here,” P.J. Tucker said after Game 6. “He’s shown me more now than I ever thought. His heart — how he’s never scared of the moment. That, in itself, is a talent. I’ve played with guys who are really good, but when they get in those big moments, they shy away and they don’t want it. He wants every part of every moment.”

It’s not the first time his 3-point shooting efficiency has surged in the playoffs. In 2019-20, he sported a 34.9 3-point percentage, 10.5 percentage points above his regular season mark; in 2017-18, he netted a career best 47.1 percent of his triples (3.4 attempts), 12.1 percentage points higher than the regular season.

He’s doing it again this postseason, noticeably getting more lift on his jumper — making him one of Miami’s most effective shooters from inside-the-arc and a more respectable threat from long range.

Here are where Butler’s statistical marks stand with players who have played at least two playoff rounds:

  • Scoring: 28.7 PPG — 4th (behind Giannis, Doncic, Tatum)
  • Rebounding: 7.6 RPG — 9th
  • Assists: 5.4 APG — 11th
  • FG% (min. 15.0 FGA): 52.5 — 1st
  • TS%: 61.8 — 5th
  • Win shares: 2.5 — 1st
  • PER: 31.2 — 1st

Yes, there is a (slight) case that Butler has been the league’s best player this postseason, or at least in the upper echelon of players.

“I think he’s one of the ultimate competitors in this profession,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He competes on both ends. He is an extremely efficient offensive player. And when his only focus is just about driving a team to win, all the other things are irrelevant ... It’s just about doing whatever it takes to win the game.”

It wasn’t that long ago, after undergoing the second-shortest offseason in NBA-history, Butler and the Heat collectively ran out of gas while also facing the hungry, ambitious Milwaukee Bucks, the eventual NBA champions, who promptly swept Miami in four games. Now, Butler’s led it to its second conference title appearance in three years — both coming against the Boston Celtics.

“He’s not scared at all and that fearlessness, and he puts that into a lot of different guys on our team,” Tucker said. “He gives [our team] confidence. In a weird way, but he does it. And it works. For me being a veteran and playing against him for years to now be beside him, that chemistry that we’ve built together with [Bam Adebayo], with [Kyle Lowry] — it’s special. It’s fun.”

Butler’s produced from practically every area of the court. Per Cleaning the Glass, the six-time All-Star’s shooting 71 percent at the rim (67th percentile amongst all wings) and 51 percent on short 2s (67th percentile). And while he’s been a little more inefficient near the 3-point line (38 percent on long 2s; 42nd percentile), he still shot 45 percent on combined mid-range jumpers — good enough to reach the 62nd percentile.

Each of those aforementioned shooting spots inside the arc were at least four percentage points better than his regular season statistical marks, albeit at a much smaller sample.

All that said: A tougher challenge awaits. Perhaps the toughest he’s encountered since joining Miami.

The switch-heavy Celtics — the league’s best defense in the regular season — will attempt to flatten Butler’s path to the rim. They don’t possess many — if any — weak-links within their eight-man rotation, at least not to the tune of Tyrese Maxey or Georges Niang — who Butler ruthlessly attacked throughout the Sixers series.

The question remains: Can he keep this level of play up?

Here’s how he fared against Boston during the regular season:

Boston (two games): 22.0 PPG, 3.5 REB, 2.0 AST, 1.0 SPG; 48.6 FG%, 0-7 3PT, 10-16 FT (52.3 TS%)

I offer these numbers to suggest that relying in a very small regular season sample could obviously be misleading when we’re discussing potential productivity in a seven-game series. Butler didn’t have the best showing in three appearances against Philadelphia in the regular season — averaging 18.7 points on 52.1 percent true-shooting — and we just saw what he did in the six conference semifinal contests.

“He gets incredibly desperate in close games or when he sees the light at the end of the tunnel to close out a team,” Spoelstra said. “He’s not going to leave it to chance. And he saw it tonight (Game 6). He was brilliant all series long. He understands that it’s just this series and the challenges only get tougher from here, but he saw an opportunity to end this tonight. He wasn’t going to let this go to seven.”

That said, the Celtics feature a much sturdier defensive personnel than the aforementioned Sixers with a compromised Joel Embiid, who when fully healthy, is one of the best defensive forces the sport has to offer.

Boston’s an average rebounding team but can protect the rim with athletic Robert Williams, who should be returning for this series, and Al Horford, who turned back the clock like it was 2014 against the Bucks. Getting to the rim — for Butler and Miami’s other half court creators — is perhaps the most challenging task difficult, however, due to the switch-heavy scheme.

To better optimize Butler’s usage, aside from his typical on-ball usage, the Heat could use Butler as a screener (and slipper) in drag screens or double drags, while also utilzing Butler as a primary hand-off initiator with shooters Max Strus, Tyler Herro, or Duncan Robinson (if he plays) who can draw multiple defenders to open up downhill alleys for Butler.

Regardless, Butler’s answered the bell time-and-time again. Recall him going head-on with LeBron James and Anthony Davis without both Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic for much of the 2019-20 NBA Finals, averaging 26.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, 9.8 assists and 2.2 steals.

You need Miami to get a bucket late in games? Go to Jimmy. Need to stop a mini-run? Jimmy’s your guy. Need a bucket at the end of the shot clock? Again, go to Jimmy. Seems like there’s a common theme for who’s been the primary outlet in such situations.

But downing Boston will inarguably be Butler’s — and the Heat’s — toughest test thus far. It’s accomplishable, but it will be far from easy.

The Bucks might have had an alien in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and I say that in the best way possible. Giannis, who had three 40-point games in the series, is arguably the best player in the world. But Miami has a player who’s known for getting buckets, and his initials are JGB — Jimmy G. Buckets.