Playoff Jimmy Has No Equal
11:07 AM EDT on April 25, 2023
I watched Dwyane Wade singlehandedly carry the Miami Heat to the 2006 NBA title, dropping 43 points in Game 5 of those Finals, and then following up with 36 more in a clinching Game 6. I watched LeBron James rudely assert his dominance over the Boston Celtics in 2012. Hell, I vaguely remember Tim Hardaway scoring 38 points to close out the Knicks in a Game 7 way back in 1997. I have seen all of those great Miami Heat performances in the playoffs, but none of them compare to what Jimmy Butler did against the Bucks in Game 4 on Monday night.
Sure, what Wade and LeBron did was more important in the grand scheme of things; the former won a title, and the latter saved the Big Three experiment from elimination and total collapse. But in the context of a single-game performance, Butler scoring 56 points to drag eight-seed Miami to a 3-1 series lead over the ostensible title favorites tops everything that came before.
It's in the way he did it. With the return of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Heat had to know that they were on a deadline. If Milwaukee was able to tie the series at two with their omega-star running a bit hobbled and under 100 percent, the series would flip in their favor. Miami needed to win Game 4 to keep hope of the 8-1 upset alive, and it needed to punch Milwaukee in the mouth right away.
That's where Butler came in, playing all 12 minutes and scoring 22 of Miami's 28 points in the first quarter. He was a machine of Butlerian capabilities in this first period, going 9-of-10 from the field, 2-of-2 from behind the arc, while (in a bit of a statistical glitch) missing two free throws that could have pushed his total up to 24. The flurry was needed for the Heat, who even with that performance from their star, still trailed by five heading into the second.
It felt from the start that this would need to be another vintage Playoff Jimmy Butler performance, akin to Games 3 and 5 from the 2020 bubble Finals, where he carried Miami to a respectable six-game loss against the bigger and more talented Lakers. The same type of foe faces Miami now; the Bucks are huge compared to Miami, whose tallest starter is the puny-by-comparison 6-foot-9 Bam Adebayo.
Milwaukee used this height to its advantage, especially since Antetokounmpo was clearly not back to his usual world-beating self. (It speaks to his talent that a bit of an off night concluded with a 26-10-13 triple-double.) Instead, it was Brook Lopez, all 7-foot-1 of him, that led the way for the Bucks, dropping an eventual career-high 36 points to help build a 13-point lead with just under nine minutes left, 98-85. It was Lopez who dunked that lead into existence, and it was Lopez who scored 11 in the final frame to attempt to stave off a brutal Butler-led run in those nine minutes.
It didn't matter, though. Butler book-ended his 22 in the first quarter with 21 in the fourth, and this period looked even more like a Butler masterclass. He shot 75 percent from the field and hit eight straight free throws before missing one right at the end, when the game had already turned from a 13-point lead for Milwaukee into the eventual five-point Miami victory. He had more help in the fourth quarter than he had the first; a long Caleb Martin two-pointer led directly into a Kyle Lowry steal that helped give Miami its first lead of the game with just over three minutes to play:
That was just the warm-up, though. The Bucks stayed in the game so that it was 109-107 with about 90 seconds to go. The next two Heat possessions, or Butler possessions if you want to be more specific, will live on in Miami lore for some time: Thanks to a Lowry screen and some lazy defense from Jrue Holiday, Butler found a bit of room early in the shot clock and ripped a straight-on three-pointer that gave Miami a 110-109 lead.
The Heat would not trail again, partly because on the next trip down the court, Butler again lost Holiday thanks to a Lowry screen, ran up the court, and then hit what looked like a roof-collapsing three-pointer on the stepback, before yelling to no one and everyone in particular that, "This is my shit."
(A bit anticlimactically, the three was ruled a two; it was the correct call, his foot was on the line, but it would have been so cool if it had stood. Still cool, though.)
The rest of the way for Miami featured free throws upon free throws, Butler's specialty, and his five made freebies in the final minute pushed his point total all the way to 56, the fourth-highest total in NBA playoff history, behind Michael Jordan's 63, Elgin Baylor's 61, and Donovan Mitchell's 57 in the bubble. (If Butler had made his last free throw, he would have tied for third with Mitchell. Alas.)
The 56 points also, quite obviously, stands as the new Miami Heat playoff points record, besting LeBron's 49 in the second round of the 2014 playoffs. Butler now owns three of the top five Heat performances in the playoffs, all in the last two postseasons; those don't include his 2020 Finals heroics, either. When judging on the box scores, Butler is the best playoff performer in Heat history by pretty much every individual metric. I'm sure Wade and LeBron will be happy with their titles, but what Butler is doing somehow surpasses two of the best to ever do it. Thanks to yet another explosion at the exact moment that Miami needed it, Butler has pushed the Bucks to the brink of elimination. All it took was 56 points, some mild cursing, and a whole lot of Jimmy Buckets.
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