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Jimmy Butler Goes With The Flow

Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

The Miami Heat found themselves in another close game Thursday night, battling possession by possession in the fourth quarter against a visiting Clippers team once again missing its best player. Winning or losing a game in the final handful of possessions has become the norm for these Heat, who've already participated in a league-high 17 clutch games (in which the score is within five points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime) so far this season, versus just nine games where they or their opponent had a comfortable lead in the game's final five minutes.

There's a way of looking at Miami's record in close games—now 9–8 after pulling out the win over the Clippers—as evidence of good luck for a team now two games below .500, and that has had its rotation wrecked by injuries. Erik Spoelstra's preferred starting lineup—Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, Caleb Martin, Tyler Herro, and Kyle Lowry—has played together in just nine games; true to form, Butler's return after missing Tuesday's loss to the putrid Pistons coincided with the absences of both Lowry and backup point guard Gabe Vincent, and the plugging into the starting lineup of undrafted rookie Dru Smith. It's been that kind of year in Miami, and it is only because they've scratched out a decent record in nip-and-tuck finishes that the Heat, broadly underperforming both their pedigree and preseason expectations, are within shouting distance of the Eastern Conference playoff pack.

On the other hand! The Heat have the NBA's ninth-best net rating in clutch situations this season, owing in large part to a defense that goes from solid to terrifying when the chips are down. So there's a way of looking at Miami only grabbing nine wins from 17 of these games as bad luck, too: Over the course of the season, a team that outscores opponents by more than 10 points per 100 clutch possessions while playing more clutch games than anyone else would have to look around for signs of a voodoo curse to explain hovering around .500 in such games. There is the sense around the team that they have let themselves down, this season, in late-game scenarios. But that's the whole nature of clutch play: You can broadly out-execute your opponents in a way that shows up on a chart tracking the long regular season, but there are not 100 clutch possessions in a given game, nor anything like it. To win consistently in one-possession scenarios, you need something better than the extremely high variance on Tyler Herro 28-footers. You need Jimmy damn Butler.

Adebayo, who was marvelous against the Clippers, was asked after the game how the Heat were able to persevere this time, against another of the league's most seasoned clutch teams, and his answer was telling: "We gave the ball to Jimmy." Butler isn't widely hailed as one of the sport's real one-man offenses, but the man becomes something like unstoppable in the clutch. It's a somewhat less heralded version of Chris Paul Time, the point late in a game where Butler shifts from participating in the offense to controlling the offense. Butler is not the mid-range wizard that Paul is, nor is he quite the passer or ball-handler. But he's a lot bigger and stronger, and that gives him a greater range of matchups that can be tilted in his favor, and he's got the same bag of slimy tricks for creating contact and forcing his way to the line, which he is only too happy to unpack if he feels it is the straightest line to victory. His greatest strength, when he shifts into bucket-getting mode, is an absolute determination to take only the shots he is most comfortable taking, and perfect clarity about which situations give him the greatest advantages. Over the years Butler has become downright spookily good at seizing every opportunity to rip an opponent's guts out.

Thursday night he did it by following that preternatural instinct for hunting down vulnerable defenders and pinning them in disadvantageous spots on the floor. The Clippers preferred to use Paul George as Butler's primary defender, but Butler preferred to be defended by Reggie Jackson and Luke Kennard, and because his will is undeniable, Butler got his way, and then methodically smushed those smaller players down toward his preferred spots on the floor for shots he was comfortable taking, and making. Butler, who did not miss a shot over the game's final three quarters, scored Miami's final eight points and pretty much single-handedly kept the Clippers at arm's length. He went butt-first against Jackson, pushing him down toward the low block and then gliding across the lane for a lovely fading 10-foot jumper. He used a quickness advantage to get his shoulder into Kennard's sternum, then pump-faked Kennard into the air and knocked down an 11-footer through contact that in many cases would've earned an and-one free throw. With 57 seconds left and the Clippers back within a bucket, Butler once again forced his way onto Jackson and took him down to the low block, then used nifty footwork to drop in a beautiful 15-foot fadeaway jumper. For good measure, on Los Angeles's final meaningful offensive possession, Butler went flubber mode for the game-sealing defensive rebound:

A very cool thing about 33-year-old Jimmy Butler is how uninterested he is, in general, in forcing the action. George is one of the NBA's best individual defenders, and he had the primary Butler assignment for most of the night. Lots of alpha-scorer types would continue to attack this matchup, fruitlessly; lots of others would grind their way through a lot of high-screens hoping to eventually force the Clippers to switch, eschewing other avenues and eating up lots of valuable play-clock along the way. Butler for the most part just goes with the flow: Just one of his shots on the night came with George as the nearest defender, and zero of them came while George was close enough for a contest. Instead, he was perfectly happy to sling the ball around and operate as a facilitator, an opening the Heat needed filled with Lowry and Vincent on the shelf, waiting until circumstances produced favorable matchups before hunting his own offense. NBA teams reliably go switch-happy in late-game scenarios, and that is when Butler felt comfortable dominating the ball and hunting mismatches, and that's how he wound up with 26 points on 12 shots while finishing second among all players on both teams in touches: Stay in the flow of the game until the game inevitably moves your way, and then punish the poor fools the game puts in your crosshairs.

You wouldn't know it from their record, but the Heat can be a legitimate title contender this very season. On most nights, no matter who they're facing, Bam Adebayo will be no worse than the second-best player on the floor. On most nights, Tyler Herro will be the deadliest shooter on either team, and one of the two or three most dynamic offensive weapons. Over the course of an 82-game season, those advantages plus a stable rotation (a luxury the 2022 Heat have yet to enjoy) are as much as Spoelstra will need to craft a team that wins more than it loses. Eventually the Heat will figure out the template for greatness with the team built entirely around those two. For now, having a healthy Butler out there is like a fucking superpower. If their defense continues to clamp down late in one- and two-score games, Butler will do the rest. He may be a well-known cheesebutt, but the man knows how to win a dang basketball game.

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