Is There Still Time for Jimmy Butler to Write His Playoff Story? Jimmy Butler radiated calm assurance as he walked off the court after Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, which Boston won on a last-second putback by Derrick White.
The coach remarked, “That’s good basketball,” at the postgame news conference. Like most others, you will repeat the same test until you pass it.
The defeat was the most recent event in a wild postseason ride for the Miami Heat. In the previous two months, Butler has lifted Miami to the verge of the NBA Finals despite the team’s lack of depth and talent, playing at an absurdly high level and inspiring the Heat to surpass all expectations.
Butler scored 31 points in a must-win play-in game against his former team, the Bulls, to secure the eighth spot in the East. He led Miami to a five-game series win over the first-seeded Bucks by averaging 38 points, six boards, five assists, and two steals in the first round. Then, despite playing on a sprained ankle, he led the Heat to victory over the Knicks, bringing back memories of his incredible performance in the Orlando “bubble” in 2020, when the fifth-seeded Heat went on a tear that took them to the NBA Finals.
A similar pattern emerged during the Eastern Conference finals against Boston. Strong clutch performances from Butler and confident play from the rest of the Heat helped the Heat take a 3-0 series lead over the Celtics, despite a skill discrepancy. Since the blowout loss in Game 3, though, Boston has turned the tables, and Butler has looked mortal for the first time in these playoffs.
He shot just 5-for-21 from the floor and battled to regain control in Game 6, causing some to question whether he and the Heat have enough left in the tank to finish off the Celtics. Nonetheless, he hit three huge free throws to put Miami ahead in the game’s final seconds.
Now the Heat travel back to Boston for Game 7, where they will either create history as the first NBA team to lose a series after leading 3-0 or as the second 8-seed ever to make the NBA Finals, where the Denver Nuggets await. The stakes are high enough on Monday that it will be the Heat’s most challenging game.
While Butler is now one of the most unavoidable figures in the NBA playoffs, his career has been anything from predictable. Chicago selected him with the 30th overall choice in the 2011 NBA Draft. He became a defensive guru and eventual All-Star while playing for Tom Thibodeau. Before that, he played for a year at Tyler Junior College because Centenary was the only Division I school to offer him a full scholarship straight out of Tomball High School. He then spent three seasons at Marquette.
Even after becoming an NBA superstar, Butler never lost touch with his friends from Tyler, and the group even signed a pact one year. Mike Marquis, Tyler’s head coach, tells me that sometime around 2015, he addressed the squad and explained to them what it meant to play for the school. Then he said he’d return if we reached the regional final.
Butler kept his word and returned to the club that summer for workouts and scrimmages, and the rest of the squad kept theirs. A Tyler player, though, issued a challenge one day following a practice.
The series has been a roller coaster, but it has offered Butler another chance to do what he does best: confound expectations. He has made a career out of proving doubters wrong in basketball and has done so with great enthusiasm.
“It comes from probably consistently being told no, or that there are other guys that are better, or that we’re going to recruit him instead of you,” says Brad Ball, Butler’s high school coach. He is constantly being challenged to prove his worth. I believe that’s something he’s had to do his whole career.
Marquis claims that following the incident, “one of them mouthed off to him in the training room.” “And Jimmy looked at me and asked, ‘Coach, what time we play tomorrow?'” I said, ‘3:30.’ Bet, I got this,” he proclaimed. And he called up a couple of our old players, took a walk-on, and the next day they swept all seven games.
The dominance of an NBA star over a junior college team isn’t unprecedented, but Butler has had numerous examples of this throughout his professional basketball career. Butler’s response to being insulted is one of vengeance. While still a member of the Timberwolves in 2018, Butler famously beat a starting group that included Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns by selecting four reserve players and flying in for training camp after a preseason contract dispute.
After getting into an argument with Celtics forward Grant Williams during Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Butler went on a shooting spree to help the Heat come back from a 96-87 deficit and win the game and grab a 2-0 series lead.
After the game, Bam Adebayo remarked of Jimmy, “I feel like things like that always fuel Jimmy.” He initiates it to gain an advantage in the game. What he was up to was evident by the last stretch.
Butler has been outstanding in the playoffs, but the Heat’s run to the final four couldn’t have happened without the contributions of several players on the verge of obscurity before finding a home with the Heat. The club has embraced the fearless attitude of its star player, Jimmy Butler, whom many players have praised, encouraging them to improve their games.
Undrafted guard Gabe Vincent has emerged as a critical contributor to the Heat’s offense in the playoffs, scoring 17 points per game versus Boston. Another undrafted player, Caleb Martin, has emerged as his team’s key reserve on the wing. Martin scored 21 points, grabbed 15 rebounds in Game 6, and is shooting 46 percent from outside the arc in the conference finals.
The Heat team has adopted Butler’s unfettered confidence and self-assurance. “I think the big thing is he recognizes who wants to win,” Ball adds of the coach. He does want to win, you know. His versatility is one of his greatest strengths. You need him to score 56 points like he did last week or the week before, grab ten rebounds, and shut down their best player while scoring 19 points. He is willing to do anything to succeed.
But Miami needs a miraculous performance from Butler if it hopes to make it to the Finals. The Celtics are the only team with the advantage of playing at home. According to The Ringer’s NBA Odds Machine, Boston has a 68% probability of winning Game 7, but Miami has Butler and many players who have consistently defied the odds. Can they pull off one more upset win?
“Like I told the guys on the bench,” Butler reflected on Game 6 by saying, “What I told you guys.” If it weren’t for my playing better, we wouldn’t even be in this predicament. I promise that I will improve.
A blush of shame follows.
He said, “That makes me smile because those guys follow my lead.” We have to win away from home in a very, very, very difficult setting. We can do it, though. Then, “Let’s get to work.”