Jimmy Butler Has Once Again Put the Heat on His Back

With Butler playing some of the best basketball of his career, Miami finally resembles the squad that made it to the NBA Finals last season.
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Jimmy Butler ascended during the 2020 NBA Finals. The brash baller from Tomball thoroughly carried a decimated Heat team that ultimately succumbed to the Lakers in six games. In the series, Butler played the most complete basketball of his life, averaging 26.2 points, 8.3 rebounds and 9.8 assists per game—including two triple doubles—albeit in defeat. Never before had Butler so thoroughly been the fulcrum of his team’s success. With a title on the line, he was Miami’s leading scorer, assist man and rebounder, all while serving as the team’s defensive anchor and primary ballhandler. It was the most LeBronlike performance of any LeBron opponent in the Finals. And when asked about whether that distinction meant anything to him shortly after the loss, Butler was characteristically blunt:

“Honestly, no,” Butler told me when asked if he gained satisfaction from his performance on that stage. “I know what type of player I am, I know what I can do. But all of that was just for waste, we didn’t win. So at the end of the day, I don’t care. The highlights are there, but the trophy isn’t.”

Well, if there were still any doubts from the outside as to whether Butler could sustain that level of play from the bubble, he’s put them to rest over the last six weeks, as he’s once again put the Heat on his back during the best stretch of his career. After an early-season ankle injury and then an experience with COVID-19, Butler has been (aside from two games) a mainstay in Miami’s lineup, and his impact has been through the roof. After dropping a season-low seven games under .500 on Feb. 3, Miami moved over .500 for the first time this year with a win over the Magic on Thursday. At 19–18, the Heat are now tied with the Celtics for fourth place in the East.

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Since Jan. 30, the Heat are 12–5 when Jimmy starts. In that time, Butler is averaging 22.6 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 8.9 assists a night. The only other player in the league hitting all those benchmarks over the same period is James Harden.

In the era of three-point shooting, Butler’s game is unique for a player of his stature. Of all 20-point-per-game scorers in the NBA, Jimmy averages the second-fewest three point attempts. Only the burly Zion Williamson averages fewer shots from beyond the arc in that group. And unlike the midrange-betrothed DeMar DeRozan, another three-point allergic scorer, Butler plays every possession hell-bent on getting to the rim. He takes nearly 60% of his shots within 10 feet of the rim, converting on 52.9% of those looks. Butler also attempts 8.5 free throws a game, fourth-best in the league.

But the most exciting part of Butler’s blossoming is his playmaking. After averaging a career-best six assists a night in 2019–20, he’s now dishing eight dimes a game in 2020–21. His improved passing is a big reason why he has four triple doubles in the last 17 games alone. And the Heat need every ounce of juice Jimmy is providing on offense. Even during this run of wins since Jan. 30, Miami is only 19th in offensive efficiency.

The variety of Butler’s assists is a testament to how willing of a passer he is. Against the Magic on Thursday, of his 11 helpers, two came in transition, four came off drives, one off an iso, one from a handoff, one off a pick-and-roll, another off a pick-and-pop, and one from a post-up.

Watching Butler in the post is particularly tense. Because of his strength and ability to draw fouls, Butler usually has the attention of multiple defenders when he catches the ball down low. But he’s often not looking to shoot. He’ll hold the ball and wait, wait, wait, keep waiting and then all of a sudden find a cutter as he lets the off-ball movement in Miami’s offense run its course. When he drives, Butler has a knack for bullying himself all the way to the rim, sucking in the defense as much as possible and getting rid of the ball at the last second, either to a shooter or a big hovering nearby.

“I’m not going to shoot 50 shots. That’s not the way I do it,” Butler told me in November. “When you’re open, you’re going to get the ball and shoot the same shots you’ve been shooting. That’s how we’re going to play. That’s how we’re going to win.”

That exact style has come to fruition. Of all 20-point scorers, Jimmy averages the second-fewest field goal attempts a game at 14.4. And his passing and rebounding all come against the backdrop of his typically stellar defense. The Heat have the second-best defense since Jan. 30 and have a 105.5 defensive rating with Butler on the floor this year. (For context, the Lakers lead the league with a 106.1 defensive efficiency.) Simply put, with Butler’s constant presence in the lineup, Miami finally resembles the squad that upset the East pecking order en route to the Finals last season.

It’s probably still a reach to say Butler is playing at an MVP level since getting healthy, but he’s damn close. And his performance should be all the motivation Miami needs to be aggressive at the trade deadline. Butler has already proved he can lead a team in the postseason with the right pieces around him, and he’s improved since then. The Heat can’t hold back with a superstar in hand.

Last deadline, Pat Riley acquired Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder, the latter of whom entered the starting lineup and unlocked the team on both sides of the floor, thanks in large part to a hot shooting streak. Finding another three-and-D forward should be Miami’s No. 1 priority, as the current combo of Iguodala and Kelly Olynyk is solid but flawed. (Good luck finding that player, however, as that’s the most coveted archetype in the league.)

For now, after a rugged start, the Heat are finally playing up the promise they showed last summer. And as for Butler, he’s not only not surprised with his current level of command, he basically saw this coming.

“I’m gonna come back better than ever,” Butler said before the start of the season. “I know what I can do any given day. I’m just in it to win it. If that’s what it takes to win, then I got to do it.”

So far, so good.