MIAMI - Jimmy Butler continues to prove he’s one of the best players in the NBA, torching the Boston Celtics for 41 en route to a 118-107 Miami Heat victory at home. It’s his third 40-point game in these playoffs and the 6’7” swingman is the only player in the postseason averaging 25-plus points per game and over 50% shooting (29.8 ppg/53.5%).
While Butler did the lion’s share of the work on offense, the Heat were firing on all cylinders from top to bottom, especially in the second half. Miami’s defense was ferocious as usual, and the team tied a franchise playoff record with twelve blocks.
The Celtics, who were missing starters Marcus Smart (foot) and Al Horford (health and safety), jumped out to an early eight-point halftime lead. Boston’s young star, Jayson Tatum, looked spectacular in the first half, pouring in 21 points on 9-of-14 shooting and Boston was ahead by as much as 13 at one point, but Miami stormed back in the second half where Butler scored 27 of his 41. In the absence of Smart and Horford, backup guard Derrick White and secondary big man Grant Williams III couldn’t fill the holes left by the missing veterans.
Tatum was red hot in the first half, scoring at will against a Miami defense that had just locked down shooting machine Trae Young and NBA scoring leader Joel Embiid in the first two rounds. Off the bench for Boston, guard Payton Pritchard chipped in some deep three’s in both halves to finish with 18 points of his own. With an early lead and the momentum, the shorthanded Celtics looked like they may steal Game 1 and could even make easy work of the series once back at full strength. But as always, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra adjusted, and Jimmy Butler came out in the third quarter throwing haymakers.
From the beginning of the third quarter, it was clear there was a swing in momentum. Miami’s defense looked like its typical self, jumping passes and swatting shots at the rim. The best of Miami’s twelve blocks came from Bam Adebayo, when he shadowed Boston’s Jaylen Brown all the way to the basket and just as Brown laid a shot up towards the glass, Adebayo pinned it, jamming it into the corner rim and forcing a jump ball.
Not quite on par with his iconic game-winning block of Tatum’s dunk in the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals, but a huge moment in the game, nonetheless. Adebayo finished with four rejections and ten points. Three of the team’s twelve swats came from none other than Jimmy Butler, who also added four steals to increase his league leading playoff average to 2.3 per game. The Heat came up with ten steals in total, often taking advantage of sloppy ball handling and jumping lazy passes from Tatum, who gave up seven turnovers to Miami’s pressure. Jaylen Brown finally came to life for Boston in the fourth quarter, scoring 15 of his 24 points, but it was too little too late for the Celtics.
Floor general Kyle Lowry missed yet another game for the Miami Heat with a hamstring injury, but Miami’s depth showed in full force Tuesday night. In addition to his 17 points, replacement point guard Gabe Vincent also came up with three blocks and has continued to prove his utility in different defensive matchups. Tyler Herro dropped 18 points and eight rebounds off the bench, showing flashes of the rookie who hung 37 points on Boston in one game of their 2020 ECF matchup.
Boston, who dominated underneath the rim in the first half with 42 points in the paint, were only able to manage six points in the lane for the entire second half. Surely, Horford’s return at center will quench Boston’s thirst for a force in the middle. But when will that be? The NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols regarding COVID-19 are as complex as ever and Horford could miss as many as two more games if things don’t go his way.
Boston’s Smart and Miami’s Lowry both remain questionable for Game 2. It’s likely that Smart, the Defensive Player of the Year, will feel a need to play after watching his team find themselves on the wrong end of a 22-2 third quarter run by Miami. Lowry may sit out again if the Heat believe their reserves can continue to produce at a high level.
Game 1 was a contest that Miami put their trademark stamp on. A third quarter rally fueled by scrappy players, white knuckle defense and high-octane fast breaks is what “Heat Culture” is all about. In the center of that fast-paced hurricane, of course, was Jimmy Butler. When asked about that quarter, Butler didn’t mince words on his expectations for his team “I expect us to be able to do that every quarter from here on out”.
What makes Butler and the Heat so good is their ability to control pace and play within themselves. Every game, both teams will go on runs and both teams will go cold offensively. The Heat are built so that their offense focuses on fast breaks, quick lay ups, and wide-open threes which makes it easier to come out of shooting slumps as opposed to teams that rely on iso-ball to score. Miami’s defense pressures ball handlers into turnovers or quick three’s which lead to long rebounds and more opportunities for this athletic Heat squad to get out and run.
A system like this requires tough, fast, unselfish players, which Miami has a roster full of. In addition to mitigating offensive cold spells, Miami’s pace doubles down on the errors of opponents often causing a panic that can easily cascade into a huge run like we saw in the third quarter of Game 1. Celtics coach Ime Udoka said “We got out-toughed and out-physicaled. They looked like they wanted to up their physicality and aggression and we looked like we didn’t want to match it…We lost our composure.”
It's becoming harder and harder for people to argue that Jimmy Butler isn’t a top ten player in this league. He’s been the second-best player in these playoffs (behind Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks) and has put his team in a favorable position early in the series. In the battle between Tatum and Butler on Tuesday, one moment seemed to sum the night up pretty well. With just over four minutes left in the fourth, Tatum launched a three from the corner only to have it sent flying back into the stands by a Jimmy Butler denial.
In Game 2, Boston will likely rely more on Jaylen Brown to fill point guard duties and alleviate some of the pressure on Tatum. Miami will continue to put on the pressure and try to adjust for any changes the Celtics make. Game 2 will be in Miami at FTX Arena, where the Heat are still unbeaten this postseason, and tips off Thursday night at 8:30 p.m. EST on ESPN.