The Miami Heat got big performance from Jimmy Butler in the fourth quarter to beat the Chicago Bulls and advance to a first-round playoff matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks.
MIAMI — Chants of “M-V-P” rained over Jimmy Butler who, quite literally, appeared to be bathing in them.
Laying on his back with his arms spread wide and hands facing the rafters, Butler had just completed a complicated step-through from his pivot foot to score between the bodies of Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic to score, draw a foul and give the Miami Heat a one-point lead with 2:17 to go in what could have been Miami’s final game of the season.
Instead, the Heat beat the Chicago Bulls, 102-91, to advance to the playoffs. As the eighth seed, they will take on the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in a series that begins Sunday (5:30 p.m. ET in Milwaukee). And though the Heat will be overwhelming underdogs against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, that’s a concern for another time.
Because the Heat’s main concern on Friday was finding a way to salvage a disappointing season following a confounding loss to the Hawks that triggered this win-or-go-home scenario against the Bulls in the final round of the play-in tournament. Against those odds, Butler delivered.
“He just willed it down the stretch,” coach Erik Spoelstra said.
The Heat trailed by three points with 3:47 to go but then rattled off a 15-1 run to close the game. Butler scored 13 of his 31 points in the fourth quarter, including that tough layup after which Miami did not trail again in a game that featured 11 lead changes.
It was a slow start for Butler, who struggled to create separation against Bulls guard Alex Caruso, whose assignment was to deny Butler the ball best he could. In the first half, Butler did not score in the minutes Caruso was on the court. But the Heat got a timely performance from Max Strus, who scored a career-high tying 23 points in the first half to keep Miami’s offense afloat.
Then it was Butler and Strus connecting and scoring in the fourth quarter. Butler adjusted by involving his guards in more pick-and-rolls to get Caruso switched off him, and spent the second half attacking those mismatches.
Strus finished with seven of Miami’s 10 3-pointers, including six points in the final 74 seconds.
“He’s ignitable,” Spoelstra said of Strus, who shot 1 for 5 against the Hawks on Tuesday. “Watch out. If he hits two or three, it can turn into a night like this.”
Both finished the game with 31 points. Bam Adebayo struggled (1 for 9 shooting) but did provide important moments on defense, including a late contest to deny Zach LaVine a layup. Tyler Herro scored just 12 points but hit a big baseline jumper during the closing run.
It wasn’t always pretty, just like this season, but in the end the Heat did just enough to eke into the playoffs.
The Bucks are a tough draw, matchup-wise. Giannis is a dominate force for which their is no answer. Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez are in the midst of their best seasons, even at their experienced age, and Khris Middleton should return at or near the start of the series.
“We gotta play damn near perfect basketball, which we’re capable of,” Butler said.
The Heat wanted the chance. When it came down to the season’s final moments, they stepped up. They made shots, got stops, and jumped on Butler’s back. Now, for the Heat, the postseason begins. With it, a chance to make more out of this season.
“We feel like we’re Navy SEALs,” Spoelstra said. “Just drop us off in parachutes and let us go compete.”