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The Heat Didn’t Need a Miracle to Come Back in Game 4. They Had Jimmy Butler.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was back in the lineup for the Bucks, but it didn’t matter. Playoff Jimmy dropped 56 spectacular points and put the Heat a game away from upsetting the title favorites in the first round.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

In the span of half a quarter in Miami on Monday night—half an incandescent, stupendous, mind-boggling quarter—the entire 2022-23 NBA title landscape may have shifted.

The Milwaukee Bucks should have won Game 4 against the Miami Heat. Everything pointed in the Bucks’ direction. They had the NBA’s best regular-season record; with the no. 1 seed, they entered the postseason as championship favorites; and most of all, on Monday night, they welcomed back Giannis Antetokounmpo, who’d missed all but 11 minutes of the series due to a back injury suffered early in Game 1. Sure, the Bucks trailed 2-1 against the eighth-seeded Heat, but with Giannis back, they were poised to regain home-court advantage and get their title hopes back on track.

Indeed, the Bucks controlled nearly all of the game, grabbing the lead early and maintaining a seemingly comfortable margin for the next three and a half quarters. At the halfway mark in the final period, Milwaukee led 101-89, thanks to a strong two-way game from Brook Lopez and a triple-double from Giannis—who enjoyed perhaps the most sophisticated passing game of his career.

Yet evidently, not everything pointed in Milwaukee’s direction, because Jimmy Butler plays for the Heat, and nobody has produced at a more consistently spectacular level this postseason than Butler, who’s made a habit of exploding every spring. The six-time All-Star has done it all through four games in these playoffs: He has scored over Jrue Holiday, around Lopez, and through Antetokounmpo; he’s made confident shots from deep, in the midrange, and at the rim; he’s gotten to the line seemingly at will.

And on the back of Butler’s 56 points—a Heat playoff record, for a franchise with no shortage of all-time playoff greats—Miami completed a shocking comeback in a 119-114 win. Milwaukee was six minutes away from regaining control of the series. Now, the Heat are one win away from perhaps the biggest upset in NBA playoff history.

As he has all series, Butler started Game 4 with a first-quarter eruption. He scored 14 points in the first quarter of Game 1, 13 in Game 2, and 17 in Game 3—and did even better in Game 4, with 22 points on 9-for-10 shooting. In the NBA’s play-by-play era (since 1996-97), that first-quarter points total has been matched in the playoffs only by Devin Booker and Michael Porter Jr., who scored 22 on the same day in 2021.

But the Bucks still led after 12 minutes because nobody else on the Heat could find a rhythm. Over the next two periods, Butler himself settled down and at points looked exhausted as Giannis, Lopez, and the Bucks wrested away control.

Through three quarters, only Butler and Bam Adebayo—with 11 points on just 5-for-15 shooting—had double-figure points for the Heat. That offensive stagnation persisted through the first half of the fourth quarter, during which the Heat scored just 11 points—and then, in a blink, it disappeared, and the Heat poured in 30 points in the second half of the fourth.

Adebayo started the fateful run with a pull-up jumper, and Butler followed with a jumper and an and-1 layup. Caleb Martin drew a foul in transition and knocked down both free throws, and all of a sudden, a 12-point lead was down to three.

The Heat weren’t done. Martin—who was incredible off the bench for Miami and has been effective all series—hit a jumper with his foot on the line, and Giannis attempted to call a timeout. But the whistle didn’t come, and rather than giving the Bucks a reprieve from Miami’s run, the sequence produced a Heat steal and an emphatic Butler dunk on the other end, giving the Heat a 13-0 run and the home crowd its first lead of the night to cheer for.

Although the Bucks finally responded with a few buckets of their own in crunch time, they simply couldn’t keep up with Butler. Trailing 109-107, he nailed a 3-pointer, sank a shot with his foot on the line, and screamed his bona fides to an adoring crowd, as the party lit up in the newly named Kaseya Center.

Butler’s final stat line in the comeback was as overwhelming as the experience of watching it unfold live, shot by shot: 56 points on 19-for-28 shooting, including 3-for-8 from distance for a player who often looked tentative from deep in recent regular seasons. That final bit is representative of the Heat’s broader extraordinary shotmaking in this series, which has propelled them to a 3-1 lead.

In the regular season, Miami ranked 25th in offensive rating, ahead of only five lottery teams. In particular, the team’s once-elite 3-point shooting stagnated, and the Heat hit just 34 percent of their long-range attempts, which ranked 27th in the league and last for any playoff team. The offensive struggle continued through both of Miami’s play-in games.

Through four games against Milwaukee, though, the Heat have connected on 48 percent of their 3-point tries, easily the top mark for any team in the first round of the playoffs. Even more remarkably, they’ve made that leap despite mostly missing Tyler Herro, their best shooter, who broke his right hand in Game 1. Six of the seven Heat players with at least 10 3-point attempts in this series have outperformed their regular-season marks, led by Butler and Duncan Robinson, who’s rediscovered his shooting form from the bubble after falling out of Erik Spoelstra’s rotation.

Heat 3-Point Shooters

Player Regular Season Playoffs Difference
Player Regular Season Playoffs Difference
Duncan Robinson 32.8% 76.5% +43.7%
Jimmy Butler 35.0% 52.9% +17.9%
Gabe Vincent 33.4% 47.6% +14.2%
Kevin Love 29.7% 42.1% +12.4%
Caleb Martin 35.6% 46.7% +11.1%
Max Strus 35.0% 38.5% +3.5%
Kyle Lowry 34.5% 30.0% -4.5%

Against Milwaukee’s typically stout defense, which boasts three of the NBA’s premier defenders in Giannis, Lopez, and Holiday, the Heat haven’t generated a tremendous amount of open looks. Their shot quality—based on factors like shot location, defender distance, and shooter identity—is actually worse than it was in the regular season, according to Second Spectrum, and is the second-worst for any playoff team.

But the Heat have outperformed their expected effective field goal percentage by a gobsmacking 10.5 percentage points thus far against Milwaukee. For context, the second-largest over-performer this postseason is Boston, at plus-3.1 percentage points. The largest over-performer for any team in any series since the bubble was the Clippers against the Jazz in 2021, at plus-5.2 percentage points, or only half as large as the Heat’s gap now.

Heat Shot Quality Vs. Shotmaking

Statistic Regular Season Playoffs
Statistic Regular Season Playoffs
Expected eFG% 53.6% 52.3%
Rank 16th of 30 15th of 16
Actual eFG% 53.0% 62.8%
Rank 23rd of 30 1st of 16
Difference -0.3% +10.5%
Based on analysis of Second Spectrum data

Playoff history or not, “Zombie Heat” reputation or not, Miami probably can’t sustain this level of shotmaking much longer. But with a 3-1 lead, the Heat might not need to—all they need is one more win in three tries to complete just the fifth 8-over-1 upset in NBA playoff history, the first since Philadelphia beat the Derrick Rose–less Bulls in 2012.

With two more potential home games and a healthy Giannis, the Bucks have legitimate reasons to hope for a comeback. But from the Heat’s perspective, winning one more game, even against an opponent as fearsome as the full-strength Bucks, is even more likely as long as they can count on Playoff Jimmy.

Miami’s first two wins this series, after all, seemed a bit flukish, thanks to both aberrant shotmaking and Giannis’s injury. Both victories were blowouts. But on Monday night, the Heat beat Giannis in a close game, in what I’d almost deem a miraculous comeback.

Yet we don’t need to turn to mystical miracles to explain Miami’s furious finish to Game 4. We just need to turn to Butler’s 56 points and his irrepressibly clutch playoff flair.