Erik Spoelstra compared Jimmy Butler to Dwyane Wade. Here’s why.

Apr 4, 2023; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) dribbles defended by Detroit Pistons guard Jaden Ivey (23) in the first half at Little Caesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 4, 2023; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) dribbles defended by Detroit Pistons guard Jaden Ivey (23) in the first half at Little Caesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports /

Before meeting reporters for his postgame news conference, Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra pulled Jimmy Butler aside to tell him who he’d been thinking about during Butler’s dominant fourth quarter: Dwyane Wade.

“He really reminds me of somebody when he gets in that mode down the stretch,” Spoelstra told media after the game. “I am not going to say who that is. I did mention it to him. I’ll let you guys figure that out.”

It doesn’t take much flipping through the mental Rolodex to identify who Spoelstra was referring to. When asked in the locker room about the comparison, Butler confirmed Spoelstra’s comparison was to Wade.

“It’s like a blessing and a curse because he is without a doubt one of the greats,” Butler said. “But then it’s like every time you do anything, that’s who you get compared to.”

There are differences, for sure. Butler is bigger. Wade, in his prime, was faster. Butler does most of his damage going right. Wade preferred to drive left. Wade has three rings. Butler is still working on his first. But resumé and style of play wasn’t what Spoelstra was referring to. He was talking about something less technical, more primal. A competitive fire that burns when most needed.

The Heat needed Butler late in Tuesday’s 118 to 105 win over the Pistons. With the score tied midway through the fourth, Butler entered and scored 18 points on 7 of 7 shooting in the final 5:57.

It was Wade-esque in that the opponent didn’t know what to do with Butler. Back in Wade’s day, he confounded opponents with his electric first step, turnaround jumpers and knack for drawing contact. On Tuesday night, the Pistons were exasperated as they tried and failed to prevent Butler from getting where he wanted to go.

The scouting report on Butler is out: He wants to go right, so force him left. You can see the Pistons attempting to do just that by shading his right side and spreading their arms to impede driving lanes. Problem for them is it didn’t work.

Butler uses micro-movements to throw off his defenders. Head fakes, shoulder leans and the like. Here he takes the provided runway from Cory Joseph, drives to just below the free throw line and rises up after a jump stop. Joseph gave him too much room. Butler took it and drew the foul.

Of Butler’s seven shots in the fourth quarter, only one came from the left side of the basket. Here it is:

The Pistons have him where they want him, on the left side of the court. Butler’s primary defender shades to his right to prevent him from going that direction, and a help defender flashes over for extra assurance. Butler sees the overly aggressive hep and ducks left. He gets to a spot, steps back and releases an arching baseline jumper. You can see coaches and players on the Pistons sideline looking defeated as if to say, What are we supposed to do with this guy?

What stands out about Butler’s performance is the fact that he had just two points in the first half. He hardly looked at the basket at all, preferring to try to get his teammates involved. Only when it was absolutely necessary did he decide to look for his own shot. He still finished with 27 points on 9 of 12 shooting (9 of 11 from the free throw line), eight rebounds, eight assists and four steals.

“If you can’t appreciate how many different things he does to impact winning, you’re just really not paying attention to all the aspects of the game,” Spoelstra said.

For these reasons, it’s easy to draw a line from Wade to Butler. Performances like this only underscore Butler’s greatness.

Despite Butler’s play, the Heat are just 10-10 since the All-Star break and appear stuck in the seventh place in the East. They rank 17th in offensive rating and, uncharacteristically, 25th in defensive rating in that span. Besides Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro, Butler’s supporting cast has regressed from a group that rounded out last season’s No.1 seed.

A year after Butler’s 3-pointer nearly sent the Heat to the Finals, they’ll likely need another gutsy performance to make it out of the play-in tournament. Butler’s confidence, at least publicly, hasn’t wavered. Perhaps it’s a message to his teammates. Perhaps it’s him knowing he can still dominate when he has to. With three games left to play, Butler is doubling down.

“Wherever we end up, we’re happy with,” Butler said, “and we’re going to win.”

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