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Jimmy Butler Is Going Big-Game Hunting Again

Miami’s star got buckets in every way imaginable in Game 2, dropping 45 points and a not-so-subtle notice that the top-seeded Heat are just as dangerous as anyone in this postseason

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Heat knew they weren’t going to get that from Trae Young again. Miami cruised to a Game 1 blowout victory by smothering Atlanta’s All-Star point guard with snare-drum-tight switches, holding him to just eight points on 1-for-12 shooting—only his second single-digit total of the season, and tied for the worst shooting performance of his career—with more turnovers (six) than assists (four). But they expected Young to be better once he’d had a chance to exhale after going straight from an elimination game to a date with the East’s no. 1 seed less than 48 hours later. Once the player who finished the season tied for third in scoring and third in assists got on track, Miami would need something extra.

It’s a good thing, then, that nobody in the NBA does “extra” quite like Jimmy Butler.

Butler confidently splashed a 3-pointer in the game’s first minute and never looked back. Two minutes later, he leaked out after an Atlanta miss to haul in a trademark Kyle Lowry hit-ahead pass for a transition dunk. The six-time All-Star ratcheted up his aggression from the opening tip, attacking early, often, and effectively on his way to a career-playoff-high 45 points to lead the Heat past the feisty Hawks 115-105 and take a 2-0 lead in their first-round series.

With the rest of the Heat largely quieted by a better prepared and more active Atlanta defense, Erik Spoelstra needed Butler to take the reins of Miami’s offense and keep the Hawks at bay. He obliged, taking 25 shots—tied for the most he’s taken in a Heat uniform—and seizing opportunities to create and exploit mismatches.

When foul trouble sent Bam Adebayo to the bench, leading Spoelstra to replace him with 6-foot-5 wing Caleb Martin, Butler took advantage of the Heat’s newfound five-out floor spacing by isolating against Atlanta’s wing defenders—especially when Onyeka Okongwu was off the floor, leaving the Hawks with only the just-back-from-injury John Collins to protect the rim—and beating them off the bounce to attack the basket. It paid off: Jimmy shot 10-for-12 within 8 feet of the rim and drew eight fouls, going 11-for-12 at the free throw line.

He hunted open space, cutting when he saw an opening in the Hawks’ at-times lackadaisical off-ball defense and sprinting off of misses to get behind Atlanta’s characteristically poor transition coverage. (The Heat are getting out on the break on 19.1 percent of their offensive possessions in this series, and scored a blistering 1.79 points per transition play in Game 2, according to Cleaning the Glass—both of which would’ve led the league during the regular season.) He worked both ends of the pick-and-roll, sometimes screening for Lowry and diving to the rim, and sometimes calling Lowry or Max Strus—whoever Trae was guarding, really—up to set a pick so that he could draw the overmatched Young into the action. He showcased some sauce, too, breaking out a slick behind-the-back dribble and some fancy footwork to create and drain a stepback J over Danilo Gallinari.

Butler even dribbled into a pull-up 3 in transition—which, if you’ve been paying attention, you know is decidedly not Jimmy’s game. Butler had made 12 3s total since the All-Star break; he went 4-for-7 from deep in Game 2, continuing the somewhat hysterical trend that’s seen him shoot just 24 percent from 3-point land through three regular seasons in Miami, but 35.8 percent through three postseasons with the Heat.

Jimmy got buckets every way imaginable in Game 2, and he got them when Miami needed them most. After a 15-5 run gave Atlanta the lead in the first quarter, there was Butler, drawing a foul on Bogdan Bogdanovic to stop the bleeding with a pair of free throws that put the Heat back on top. When the Hawks were 30 seconds away from heading into halftime with a lead and some hope, there was Butler, pumping Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot into the air for an and-1 that ensured Miami would enter intermission in front.

It was Butler who scored or assisted on 24 of the Heat’s 31 points in the third quarter, staking Miami to a double-digit lead. And when Young (25 points on 10-for-20 shooting with seven assists, albeit against a career-high 10 turnovers) and Bogdanovic (a career-playoff-high 29 points in 28 minutes off the bench) cut the deficit to just three with three minutes to go, it was Butler who ripped off seven straight points to push the lead back to 10 and seal the win.

All night long, it was Butler—45 points, five rebounds, and five assists, joining Dwyane Wade and LeBron James as the third Heat player ever to hit those marks in a playoff game. But Jimmy did something they didn’t: He put up those numbers without committing a single turnover. That’s just the second time anyone’s ever done that in a playoff game. The only other one: Jamal Murray, when he was fresh-dipped in flames against the Jazz back in the bubble.

Butler was incredible, and because he was, Miami’s halfway to Round 2. How much farther than that the Heat are expected to go, though, remains a matter of much debate.

Most projection systems, including ours, continue to love the Celtics, pegging Boston as the favorite to represent the East in the 2022 NBA Finals. Plenty of observers see the defending champion Bucks, who seemingly drew the friendliest matchup of Round 1, as a team poised to flip the switch and make a run. The 76ers suddenly look incredible. And after taking Boston to the absolute limit on the road in Game 1, you can understand why nobody can seem to quit the Nets.

Significantly more attention has been paid to the championship-contending bona fides of those teams than the Heat … despite the fact that Miami actually is the East’s no. 1 seed, thanks to Spoelstra’s peerless ability to reconfigure his rotation and schemes on the fly to make up for whichever key cog happens to be unavailable at any given point.

One big reason the Heat might not necessarily feel like a top-end contender as much as Insert Your East Favorite Here: skepticism about an offense that finished below Philly, Milwaukee, Boston, and Brooklyn in half-court scoring and ranked just 24th in the NBA in offensive efficiency in the clutch. Sure, the Heat racked up wins behind a great defense, a top-five free throw rate, and elite transition production. But when the game slows down in the postseason, the thinking goes, they don’t have Giannis, KD, Kyrie, Embiid, or Tatum to go get a bucket late against an equally great defense.

On one hand, I get it; those guys are incredible offensive engines. On the other, though … we probably shouldn’t be so quick to forget that Jimmy has literally been that late-game bucket-getter in the Finals more recently than any of those dudes besides Giannis.

Life moves pretty fast these days, but we’re barely 18 months removed from Butler being the best player on the floor in Finals games that featured a healthy LeBron James and Anthony Davis—not once, but twice. Skeptics and cynics can put caveats and conditions on that run to the bubble Finals, but it happened. When it mattered most, Jimmy elevated his game to a new peak—and, in the process, reached the sort of rarefied air reserved for the A-listers deemed by many (if not most) more likely to make the Finals than the Heat.

Scoring 45 on the eighth-seeded Hawks in Round 1 probably won’t change many minds. It should offer a reminder, though: that you don’t become one of the best two-way players in the world without being one hell of an offensive force; that Jimmy’s got both the temperament and the résumé to look any of those superstars in the eye in a seven-game series without blinking; and that you overlook a team with a defense that nasty led by a dude this good at your own peril.