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Jimmy Butler Earned His Chance to be the Hero

After a historic playoff run, the Heat star had every right to go for the win.

In the last two Game 7s he’s played, Jimmy Butler’s seasons came down to some thrilling shots. In Toronto in 2019, he was on the losing end of Kawhi Leonard’s four-bounce three that sent the Raptors to the East finals. On Sunday, Butler took matters into his own hands. With the Heat trailing 98–96 after a ferocious, late-game stampede, Jimmy rebounded a Marcus Smart miss, scooted the ball past halfcourt, saw a dropping Al Horford, and with about 15 seconds to go, pulled up for a right-wing three in transition. He front rimmed it. And Miami couldn’t complete its improbable comeback.

Should Butler have driven to the rim? Could he have drawn a foul on Horford? Could he have created a better shot by trying to draw the defense into the paint? These are all questions Heat fans will wonder during a torturous offseason. Though Jimmy’s shot may not have been the most statistically sound play considering his iffy long-distance jumper, after the playoffs he put together, he had every right to go for the win.

If Butler had anything left to prove after the first two rounds of the postseason, he did it against a Celtics defense that was far and away the best in the league during the majority of the regular season. In the conference finals, Butler led all players in scoring despite playing only the fourth-most minutes. He had scoring nights of 29, 35, 41 and 47 in the series, two of which came after he was clearly hampered with knee trouble. He had more 40-point games in this series than he had during the regular season. His two-way play in the conference finals far exceeded what Kevin Durant did against the same Boston team. And the Heat’s offense with Butler on the floor had more success against the Celtics than the Bucks did with Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Jimmy Butler

Simply put, Miami couldn’t ask for anything more from Butler as the competition grew more fierce. He played every minute except two in Games 6 and 7, and his individual brilliance gave the Heat a much better chance against a superior Boston team than most expected. It was a superstar-affirming effort from Butler, who was the best player on the floor in every series he played in. The version of him that existed during the 2022 postseason is unquestionably the kind of player that can be the top option on a championship team. For the second time in three seasons, he dragged the Heat to their absolute outer limit. So, though his pull-up three in the final seconds may not have been statistically the most likely route to points in that scenario, given how unlikely the Heat were to be in that situation in the first place, how far Butler had dragged them, and how exhausting an overtime period would have been, he had earned himself the right to put the outcome of his team’s season on the line.

Of course, the shot missed, which leads to more questions for the Heat than what happened on that play. The first one is almost rude: Can Butler do it again? It feels mean to tell Jimmy after the best postseason of his life he needs to come back and do it a second time. But that’s what is required of the best players in the sport. Durant and Giannis aren’t going anywhere. Tatum is only getting better. Joel Embiid looms large as well. And that’s only the East. If Miami has any chance of making it back even this far in 2023, it starts with Jimmy maintaining the standard he set in these playoffs.

The biggest challenge for the front office will be to figure out how the Heat can solve their halfcourt offensive issues without sacrificing who Erik Spoelstra wants to be defensively. Miami’s inability to score off makes doomed its offense in this series. And as great as Butler was in the pick and roll, it’s still not something he does with the frequency of other wing scorers.

Miami’s halfcourt geometry is always going to be a little tricky because Butler and Bam Adebayo are not respected outside shooters. Finding a three-level scorer to pair with them will be easier said than done, and finding them minutes won’t be simple either with proud vets like Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker in the starting five. Tyler Herro is extension eligible, and though some may view him as a solution to some of the Heat’s halfcourt woes, he struggled with tuned-in defenses in the playoffs while not offering enough resistance defensively. As essential as undrafted finds like Gabe Vincent and Max Strus were for Miami, the team is still a scorer short.

Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart (36) defends Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) the first half of game five of the 2022 eastern conference finals.

Only time will tell if this was Butler’s best chance to break through for a championship. If he’s able to sustain this level of postseason play, then the Heat are capable of contending, though this run exposed an obvious team flaw that needs to be addressed in the summer. Even with their shortcomings, Butler brought Miami incredibly close to the championship round.

The beauty of the playoffs is after a certain point, the game really does rest in the hands of the best players on the floor. Tatum, who has had his own superstar-affirming effort en route to the Finals, hit massive shots down the stretch of the fourth to put the Heat away. Butler’s own shotmaking gave Miami a chance to steal the game. Ultimately, it’s those types of players who you want with the ball in their hands with your season hanging in the balance. In the case of Butler, sometimes the bounces still won’t go your way. 

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