The best players find ways to transcend the great moments in a game.
When Giannis Antetokounmpo returned to the lineup in game four of the first round of the NBA playoffs, it was a foregone conclusion the Milwaukee Bucks would return to their dominant ways and become the NBA title favorites once again.
Instead, the transcendent Jimmy Butler (or just Playoff Jimmy, Himmy Butler, Tobias Harris’ worst nightmare, etc.) took the series away (along with some hot shooting from the Heat), winning games four and five by rising to a level very few players have ever reached.
Butler finished the series with a combined 98 points on 59 percent shooting in the final two games, including a heroic 56-point effort in game four. Butler is the first player to score 98 points or more and shoot 59 percent in a two-game span.
Taking on a Milwaukee defense that was fourth in the NBA in defensive rating and will likely have 2-3 all-defensive players at the end of the season, Butler picked them apart in the final two games, got to his spots, and abused Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez in pick and roll schemes, something unheard of during the regular season.
In the playoffs, Miami has run a league-high 29.5 pick-and-roll possessions per game (six more than the next-highest team) and scored a league-high 1.19 points per possession in those situations. Butler was involved in 11.3 pick-and-roll possessions per game as a primary ball handler, converting at an even more absurd 1.29 points per possession. Drop coverage became the catchy term of the first round of the playoffs,
It was great scouting from the Miami Heat, who took advantage of Milwaukee’s inability to pressure ball handlers off the screen all season. The Bucks had the 11th worst points per possession rate in the regular season, and Butler spammed it like he was button-mashing with Kirby in Super Smash Bros. It was a borderline abusive attack on what was viewed as the Bucks’ strength with Holiday and Lopez.
Of course, this is not the first time that Playoff Jimmy has taken over a series and dragged his team to the finish line. Throughout his time with the Miami Heat, Butler, again and again, has risen to the occasion on the biggest stage. The outsiders have been waiting to write off this Heat team, and each time Butler comes back with an even bigger swing.
Following their play-in-game loss to the Atlanta Hawks, a game where Butler struggled and the Heat looked old, questions came up about the future of some of the team’s core pieces. Bad contracts like Duncan Robinson and Kyle Lowry still hold a lot of future salary cap, and with Butler turning 34, the questions popped up if Butler would be around heading into next season.
Against all odds, Butler (and a heroic performance from Max Strus) defeated a hot Chicago Bulls team that still punched its ticket into the postseason, overcoming a near-disaster performance as the Eastern Conference’s reigning one-seed. Now Miami keeps dancing following Butler’s heroics, another chapter in a growing list of accolades for the future hall-of-fame player.
Butler has played 32 playoff games since reaching the NBA Finals in the bubble. In those games, he is averaging 27 points, seven rebounds and six assists, eerily close to the infamous LeBron James 27/7/7 stat line that has made him one of the greatest players ever. While Butler cannot do that daily, he gets nearly to the level of one of the best players in the game when the lights are brightest and now has an extensive sample size of doing it.
The question after this, of course, is how far can the Miami Heat go from here? They dispatched the top-ranked Bucks but now must face a physically demanding New York Knicks in round two before even the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers. This could be a season with no great teams, which has led to some early upsets and the potential of a dramatic finish in the NBA playoffs. The Celtics look unconvincing while struggling with the Hawks, the 76ers have their fair share of injuries, and the Knicks are, well, the Knicks. What seemed like the more straightforward conference to predict suddenly feels more difficult to comprehend.
One thing is for certain, you cannot discount Jimmy Butler in any game.