A balanced Miami Heat team came into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals with the No. 4 offense and No. 4 defense in the postseason. In the final 12 seconds of an overtime thriller on Tuesday, they executed two phenomenal, game-winning plays: one an offensive gem by their closer, Jimmy Butler; the other a nasty block by their All-Defense big man, Bam Adebayo.
Headed into the series, Butler said, “We’re not underdogs.” If the bubble has produced one truth, it’s that the NBA has no underdogs in September. The Heat’s 117-114 win over the Boston Celtics on Tuesday underscored that.
Butler’s heroics are almost routine, and in Game 1, they started in the final minute of regulation. For the first 47 minutes, Butler was a solid producer, if unexceptional by his standards. But with 25 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and the Heat trailing by two points, the ball found Butler in the right corner after a broken play descended into a frenetic scramble.
Against a tight close-out by Celtics guard Kemba Walker, Butler pump-faked and — after Walker flew by — released an off-balance 3-pointer to put the Heat up one. The Celtics negated that would-be game winner by sending it into overtime courtesy of a single foul shot after Marcus Smart drew a foul before the inbounds.
Butler’s actual game winner came almost exactly five minutes later when he drew a tough matchup at the top of the floor, Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, with the Heat trailing by one. Butler’s ability as a non-elite shooter from long range (24.4% in the regular season) to leverage his timing and strength to beat a long, elite defender such as Tatum to the rim and finish is uncanny. While he’s not a star who feels compelled to take over every facet of the game for 42 minutes, Butler thrives late with the focus and intensity of a ninth-inning stopper.
“I think that’s my job to help us win games at any point in time, but definitely in the fourth, definitely in overtime,” Butler told ESPN’s Malika Andrews. “My teammates, my coaches, this organization [has] a lot of faith in me, so I try to pull through as often as I can.”
As for the defensive exploits of Adebayo, those skills composed the other game-winning play. The third-year center is a quintessential Heat product — smart, skilled and tireless. With Tatum screaming down the lane, hammer raised for an easy-flying dunk, Adebayo met the Celtics’ young superstar at the rim with his extended left arm — all ball against one of the league’s most dangerous drivers. He preserved the Heat’s two-point lead before draining 1 of 2 free throws to ice the win.
“That’s championship-style defense,” Heat forward Jae Crowder said. “That’s stuff we’ll look back in 10, 15 years from now and watch that play. That was an amazing play … Bam came over and made a heck of a block.”
Both Boston and Miami showed flashes of their best selves in this improbable 3 vs. 5 conference finals matchup. The conditions were perfectly aligned for such a showdown: a disruptive four-month hiatus, a hermetically sealed bubble in which players were thrown off their routines, no home-court advantage for the top seeds.
Yet, the Celtics and Heat didn’t advance to the Eastern Conference finals because of the vagaries of the 2020 NBA season. They’re here because they play a disciplined brand of defense, maximize their versatility and make smart adjustments on the fly. And in Game 1, they delivered an overtime cliffhanger.
There were some highlights for Boston, including another unconscious — and characteristically unconscionable — shooting performance from guard Marcus Smart. He nailed 6-for-13 from beyond the arc and finished with 26 points. That offense was essential because Smart’s counterpart in the backcourt, Walker, struggled mightily, apart from a big step-back jumper in the final minute of overtime that, if not for Miami’s clutch plays, could have been Boston’s game winner.
“I’m just playing terrible, to be honest,” Walker said. “Not much I can say, but I have to be better. I have to do better for this team on both ends of the floor, have to make better decisions, just have to make shots overall.”
Miami’s gutsy play demonstrated particular resilience on Tuesday night, because the Heat couldn’t get anything to go early, turning in their worst-shooting quarter in the postseason in the first. They missed at point-blank range and couldn’t find any daylight against the Celtics’ tireless half-court defense. The defense was characteristically alert, but nothing the Heat did in the first 12 minutes allowed them to create a rhythm.
Basketball is a funny game, and following their first-quarter brickfest, the Heat put together their best shooting quarter of the playoffs in the second. It was a vintage-Heat, 12-minute performance. Most paint points in the NBA are achieved through drives and, decreasingly, post-ups. The Heat do one better: They never stop moving in the half-court, and they consistently found offense on Tuesday night, sneaking behind the Celtics’ stifling perimeter defense with crafty cuts.
Off-ball movement usually produces winning basketball, but it requires facilitators to execute the action. Enter Adebayo, the fulcrum of the Heat’s offense. The big man sets up shop from his perch at the high post — or even at the top of the floor with the high-low game — and finds those cutters with ease, which was the case in Game 1.
Miami’s defense, middling in the regular season, sharpens with each series. In Game 1, they mixed up their pitches — man-to-man, their switching scheme and a fair amount of zone. At one point early in the third quarter, the Heat’s zone so flummoxed the Celtics, Boston called a timeout mid-possession, with lots of cross-talk as they walked to the bench. Out of that timeout, the Celtics set up a clean look for Walker, but the ball clanked off the left side.
The Celtics will undoubtedly need more from Walker, and there’s no good reason a unit that features such lethal attackers should get pummeled in the paint by Miami. But the Heat are unassuming that way. From 1 through 10, they understand their roles and rarely work outside their skill set. That self-awareness — and a knack for timely playmaking — has vaulted a team that finished in the middle of the East’s playoff pack to the doorstep of the NBA Finals.
NBA playoffs – Inside the evolving conversation surrounding Jimmy Butler
A year ago, Jimmy Butler was changing teams for the third time in three years. He didn’t make the All-Star Game for the first time in four years, and he had developed a reputation as an irritant or a malcontent or a difficult teammate — or all three.
These days, Joel Embiid tweets as if Butler is the one who got away. The Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves could be watching Butler’s Eastern Conference finals run with the Miami Heat and wondering what might have been.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra and Butler’s Heat teammates have repeatedly praised his leadership, especially in the bubble. Butler has often said he doesn’t pay attention to what is said or written about him, but those close to him know that’s not true.
Butler hears what is said, and it has motivated him throughout his rise to basketball stardom.
Here’s how Jimmy Butler has been discussed by those who have lived the journey alongside him.
From the night the Bulls drafted him No. 30 overall in 2011, Butler brought a chip on his shoulder with him. The entire course of his basketball life centered around the premise that hard work will take him wherever he wants to go. While he initially struggled to find his place in coach Tom Thibodeau’s rotation, Butler had no problem clicking in what was already a tight Bulls locker room.
Early in his Chicago career, the conversation surrounding Butler focused on a hard-nosed role player who was a piece to a larger puzzle, not the focal point of a contender.
Bulls general manager Gar Forman, on draft night 2011: “[Butler] is a guy that’s a real fit for us. … The type of makeup and character he has, I think he’ll fit in our locker room and with the culture we’re creating.”
Bulls guard Derrick Rose, in December 2011: “He has a lot of confidence, quiet confidence, where when he’s out there, he’s always doing something good. He can defend. Plays smart, man, especially being a rookie.”
Thibodeau, in February 2012: “We’ve liked him from the start. We love his attitude and approach and the way he works every day, his demeanor. And we know he’s going to get better and better. … As he gets to learn the league and the tendencies of the players and the teams, he’s only going to get better and better. But he’s got a very serious approach to the game.”
Thibodeau, in March 2014: “The best thing about Jimmy is his demeanor. He will do it over and over and over again, and he doesn’t complain about playing the big minutes.”
Buzz Williams, Butler’s college coach at Marquette, in November 2014: “He’s not arrogant. He believes in the value of work. He’s way smarter than he ever has gotten credit for. He studies way more than anybody could ever think. He takes great pride in his craft and he always has. … He was never an all-conference player. He was never an honorable mention all-conference player. He wasn’t first-team. He wasn’t on a list.”
While the Bulls’ staff appreciated Butler’s tenacity, there was still doubt throughout the organization that he would develop the type of offensive game needed to be a permanent solution at shooting guard on an already loaded roster with an MVP in Rose.
Then, after years of taking a back seat, Butler exceeded even the most optimistic expectations about his ceiling — a better player than his most ardent supporters expected.
Butler turned down a four-year, more than $40 million offer before the 2014-15 season, just a few million shy of what he and his representatives were asking for, because he believed he could eventually make more. He was right. Butler signed a max contract worth over $90 million the following summer. After inking a superstar deal, questions surfaced surrounding Butler’s leadership.
Williams, in November 2014: “Jimmy has lived his life betting on himself. And so when you say, ‘We’re going to give you four years, $42 million,’ Jimmy doesn’t process it as four years, $42 million. He doesn’t look at it that way because he’s always bet on himself. And so if there’s a question of, here’s the option, take the guarantee or bet on yourself, well, he doesn’t know what the guarantee is. He’s always going to bet on himself. But that’s not specific to the Bulls, that’s not specific to the NBA; that’s specific to his heart.”
Former Bulls center Joakim Noah, in October 2017: “Jimmy went from the 15th player on the team, the last player coming off the bench, to the star player of the team in four years. When that happens, I’m sure that there was an adjustment period for him. There was an adjustment period for the organization. And there was definitely a change of culture.”
Tension that had been building between Butler and some of his teammates over the years finally boiled over when Butler and Dwyane Wade ripped some of the Bulls’ younger players after blowing a late lead to the Atlanta Hawks in January 2017. The decision to vent their frustration publicly angered both the Bulls’ front office and the locker room.
Bulls guard Rajon Rondo, in January 2017: “My vets would never go to the media. They would come to the team. My goal is to pass what I learned along. The young guys work. They show up. They don’t deserve blame. If anything is questionable, it’s the leadership.”
When Butler was dealt to Minnesota in the summer of 2017, he was viewed as the missing piece to a potential contender. With former No. 1 overall picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins as support and Thibodeau coaching, Butler was introduced with high expectations at a news conference inside the Mall of America. “Big three, big whatever,” Butler said at the time. “Let’s get some big wins.”
Towns, in June 2017: “This is what dynasties are made of. When you put players together with a bunch of talent and they mesh well, it makes dynasties. We’re talking about a top-15 player in the league.”
Thibodeau, in June 2017: “He’s one of the best two-way players. Watching him become a three-time All-Star, an Olympic gold medalist, All-NBA, it’s a tribute to the way he works and who he is as a person. He’s a great person, he’s a great leader and we’re thrilled to have him.”
Butler found early success with his new team, and the Timberwolves qualified for the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. But soon after the season ended, Butler made it clear to Thibodeau that he wanted out of Minnesota, in part because he wasn’t convinced that Towns and Wiggins, both of whom struggled with consistency the previous season, were going to put in the work needed to become championship-caliber players, according to sources.
The frustration that had been lingering since early in his tenure in Minnesota exploded during a heated training camp practice when Butler challenged teammates and executives. It set the stage for a deal shipping him to the Philadelphia 76ers a month into the 2018-19 season and provided a new narrative around Butler’s work ethic — one that cast him as perhaps too aggressive.
Timberwolves center Taj Gibson, just before Butler was dealt in 2018: “It was like a right hook. I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t know. I thought — it looked like from everything things were going good.”
Thibodeau, in November 2018: “I have known Jimmy a long time. Obviously, we felt when we had the opportunity to get him that we had to take advantage of that. It is rare when you have the opportunity to get a top-10 player. We knew there was risk involved with it.”
Towns, in March 2019: “We don’t know what was said behind [closed doors]. I don’t know what the front office told Jimmy. I don’t know what Jimmy told the front office. I just think that both parties came to a conclusion at the end of the day. If he wanted to be traded, as he wanted to, as he got, I wish it could have happened quicker. We would have had more time to get our team ready. We would have had more time to get our culture ready, our season ready.”
For the second time in 18 months, Butler was sent to a new team. As was the case in Minnesota, Butler found himself in the middle of two well-established young stars. His reputation from the Minnesota fallout lingered as he stepped into a combustible team with championship aspirations.
76ers GM Elton Brand, in November 2018: “In Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, we have two of the NBA’s top-20 players. Now we’ve added a third top-20 player in Jimmy Butler, who is one of the NBA’s very best on both ends of the floor.”
76ers owner Josh Harris, in November 2018: “This is a city that loves fierce competitors and those who will push against all obstacles to find a way to win. That’s the ethic that we’ve built our team on [and what Butler does] every night on the court.”
76ers coach Brett Brown, in January 2019: “When you come into a situation with Ben and Joel and JJ [Redick], it doesn’t always equal immediate comfort. As I’ve said to all of our guys over the years, you can’t always win on your terms.”
After reports of early issues with Brown, Butler found his rhythm and developed a strong bond with Embiid. But the Sixers endured a second-round loss to Kawhi Leonard and the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors, and that set up Butler’s exit from Philadelphia later that summer.
“Hell yeah [the last year] was difficult,” Butler acknowledged during a March appearance on “The JJ Redick podcast.” “It was so different. And on any given day, me as a person, as a player, I didn’t know who the f— was in charge. I think that was my biggest thing.”
76ers center Embiid, to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in October 2019: “It was a big loss, because me and him, we got to the point where we’re really close, we’re still close, we talk a lot and that’s my guy. That’s my brother forever. I wish he was on the team because I feel like the relationship that I built with him could have gone a long way. Jimmy, when it was the fourth quarter, we knew the ball was going to be [in] either me or Jimmy’s hands. And I knew I could count on him too.”
Spoelstra, the Heat coach, had heard the stories about Butler’s previous stops but valued Butler’s talent and work ethic. After Butler committed to sign with Miami, the Heat worked out a sign-and-trade deal that brought the mercurial All-Star to South Beach, where he found acceptance in a like-minded organization.
Spoelstra, in February: “We believe in Jimmy and what he’s about. We’ve had a lot of guys like that, that probably if they’re not in this system, probably people think differently of them. Udonis Haslem. I just think Jimmy is the 6-7 version of Alonzo Mourning. Or the 6-7 version of Dwyane Wade. These guys boil over with competitive fire because they care.”
Heat forward Haslem, in February: “He’s just one of our type of guys. His DNA falls in line with who we are and what we represent as an organization and the kind of guys that we want to bring in.”
Heat forward Duncan Robinson, in February: “I just don’t think it’s very common that you see a star player like that be willing to defer, particularly to younger guys. We had a game where he took three shots, but we won and he did everything else. He just does whatever it takes to win.”
Heat guard Goran Dragic, in February: “We’ve built a great chemistry, we talk a lot, and I’m happy to have him on the same team. All these years he was guarding me and it was not fun. He’s a great two-way player … tremendous team player who shoots straight up, tell you if you’re not doing your job, and that’s something I really like.”
Heat forward Andre Iguodala, in February: “When he was in other places, he got knocked for saying he was disruptive towards his other teammates, but you put him around some guys that actually want to get to the grind, what did he do for them? He upped their level of play, right?”
Heat center Meyers Leonard, in September: “He is the ultimate competitor. Everybody wondered, ‘Oh, well, is he too competitive? Or is he an a–hole?’ No, he’s not. He’s a winner.”
Predicting the Eastern Conference finals
The first three games of the Eastern Conference finals between the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics have given us enough comebacks, drama, coaching adjustments and big plays to live up to expectations and then some.
So what comes next?
We asked our NBA forecast panel to assess the series and look ahead: Who’s the best player? Which coach do you have more faith in: Erik Spoelstra or Brad Stevens? Who will win the East title? And which East team has the brightest future?
Here is how our panel sees it.
Who is the best player in the East finals?
Photo finish here, but our panel gives Celtics forward Jayson Tatum the nod over Heat swingman Jimmy Butler. Both players were named to the All-NBA third team last week, with Tatum likewise edging Butler among the voters.
Voters ranked their top three.
Which coach do you trust more in this series?
Both coaches have elite reputations, and both have winning career records in the regular season and the playoffs. But for this series, our panel showed a preference for the one who has won two championships as a head coach: Erik Spoelstra, who this season has led a surprising renaissance for Miami.
Meanwhile, Brad Stevens has the Celtics in the East finals for the third time in four years and three wins from Boston’s first NBA Finals trip in a decade.
Erik Spoelstra: 83%
Brad Stevens: 17%
Which team will win Game 4?
Boston is the pick here after the Celtics seemed to figure out how to attack Miami’s zone defense in Game 3.
Then again, the Heat are 10-2 in the postseason and have yet to lose two games in a row.
Boston Celtics: 70%
Miami Heat: 30%
Which team will win the series?
With a 2-1 lead in the series, Miami holds the upper hand, and most of our panelists expect the Heat to advance to the NBA Finals, with 37% predicting them to win in six games and another 20% picking the Heat in seven.
But if the series does go to Game 7, the advantage swings back to the Celtics, according to our panel, with 37% forecasting “Celtics in 7.”
That tells you a lot about the importance of Game 4.
Which team would have the better chance to beat the Lakers or Nuggets in the NBA Finals?
The NBA Finals begin next week, and in the Western Conference finals, the Los Angeles Lakers remain favored to advance, though the Denver Nuggets won Tuesday’s Game 3 to make the series more interesting.
When it comes to which team would match up best with the West champs, it’s a tight race for our panel — another sign of how closely matched the Heat and Celtics appear to be.
Boston Celtics: 53%
Miami Heat: 47%
Which Eastern Conference team has the brightest future?
Boston is led by Tatum at age 22 and Brown at age 23, and our panel sees good things ahead for the Celtics. But the Heat have youth on their side too: Adebayo is 23 and rookie Tyler Herro is just 20.
Voters ranked their top three.
After another key performance, Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone dubs Jamal Murray a superstar
Murray backed Alex Caruso off the 3-point line only to spin and drill a step-back 3. On the next possession, he hit Paul Millsap for a dunk with a beautiful pass on two defenders. And then Murray sealed Game 3 with a 29-foot rainbow shot to help Denver hold on to a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
“Now I know every night what I’m getting from Jamal,” said Denver coach Michael Malone. “Last year we knew what we were getting from Nikola, but what kind of game would Jamal have. That’s no longer the case.
“We have two superstars in Nikola and Jamal.”
The Lakers have arguably two of the top five players in the league in Anthony Davis and LeBron James, who combined to score 57 points on Tuesday. But it was Murray who raised his level in crunch time in Game 3, orchestrating an 8-0 run that came in the final 2:17 to hand the Lakers their first loss of the Western Conference finals.
Murray nearly matched James, who had a triple-double with 30 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds. The Nuggets’ guard had 28 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds to help Denver rebound from losing Game 2 on a crushing buzzer-beating 3 by Davis.
“We had Game 2,” Murray said of Sunday’s 105-103 loss. “We played great in Game 2. We just had a couple breakdowns that really hurt us.
“We feel like we should be up 2-1 right now, to be honest. But we’re going to move on to Game 4.”
The Nuggets have overcome a 3-1 deficit in both the first and second round of the playoffs, against Utah and the LA Clippers, respectively. But this was the first time the Nuggets have started a series down 0-2 in the last two postseasons.
“I had no doubt that we were going to show up tonight,” Malone said. “The reason I didn’t have any doubt is because we won six straight elimination games. Everybody always has us packing our bags and leaving, but we’re not ready to go. For some reason, we love this bubble.”
Murray, though, loves shooting in crunch time in the bubble. After the Lakers made a 22-6 run to cut the deficit to four, Murray answered with the 26-foot 3, the pass to Millsap and then the 29-foot dagger.
The guard now has eight clutch time 3-pointers this postseason, second most in a single postseason over the last 20 years only behind Stephen Curry‘s nine (2016), according to ESPN Stats and Information research.
“He is built for the big shots,” said Jokic, who had 22 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. “I really, truly believe that he’s a superstar.”
The Lakers might have the best 1-2 punch in the league. But Malone feels he has a superstar combo as well, a duo looking to even this series in Game 4.
“This gives us that much more confidence going into this series,” Malone said. “Letting them know that we’re here, we’re in this for the long haul.”
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