Game 6 isn’t a must-win, but the Miami Heat would prefer to avoid a Game 7 scenario in New York if they can help it. So while this team isn’t desperate to close out the Knicks on Friday at Kaseya Center, it could be a game in which they exhaust all of their options, including playing Jimmy Butler for the full 48 minutes.
“If Spo tells me to play 48 minutes, I will be suited and booted and ready to do that,” Butler said. “And we’ll win.”
Butler played nearly 43 minutes in Wednesday’s Game 5 loss at Madison Square Garden on the same night the Knicks got 48 minutes from both Jalen Brunson and Quentin Grimes. Brunson finished his epic night with 38 points on 12-for-22 shooting, nine rebounds and seven assists. Grimes’ defense on Butler was key to New York’s win.
“It’s the playoffs,” Grimes said. “You gotta do whatever you can to win.”
Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said he didn’t plan to play Brunson and Grimes the entire game but early foul trouble to their teammates prevented them from getting a breather. With the Knicks still on the brink of elimination, Brunson and Grimes may have to repeat their Game 5 heroics.
That could put the Heat in the tough position of deciding whether to play Butler more minutes, particularly if they need to match buckets with Brunson’s Knicks. Butler played all 12 minutes in Wednesday’s fourth quarter for this reason, but scored just five points in the final frame.
It’s fair to wonder if Butler’s lingering right ankle injury and heavy workload already this postseason are wearing on him. After playing 33.4 minutes per game in the regular season, Butler is averaging nearly 39 minutes in the postseason. Injuries to Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo and multiple comeback wins have played a factor in Butler’s increased playing time.
In the waning moments of Game 5, Butler was slow to turn the corner on Grimes and coughed up a costly turnover and did not attempt a shot in the final 2 ½ minutes of a close game. With 12 field goal attempts in total, Butler was mostly limited to making plays for others out of New York’s constant double-teams.
Butler was undaunted after the game, stating confidently that “I was making all the right plays. I’m not a scorer, anyways.”
But the Heat have needed him to be a scorer in these playoffs. Butler averaged 37.6 points on 60% shooting in the first-round against the Bucks and had been scoring 26.7 points on 48% shooting in his first three games against the Knicks.
For the Heat to beat the Knicks on Friday and avoid another trip to New York, Butler will have to make more of an impact on the game, even if it means bypassing the “right plays,” forcing the issue the way he had when going one-on-one with defenders like Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton in the first round and, perhaps, playing all 48 minutes.
“It doesn’t matter if I score 40, 50, 19 or nine, we always have enough to win,” Butler said. “And if I score 10 points the next game and we win, that won’t be an issue, it won’t be a question.”
The Heat, for what it’s worth, missed heaps of wide-open 3-pointers in Game 5. Including Wednesday’s 30% outing, they are shooting 31% for the series from distance. The difference in the wins and losses hasn’t been the 3-point shooting, it’s been the rebounding margin, points off turnovers, and Butler.
But if Butler scores 10 points in the next game and the Heat lose then, rest assured, it will be a question. With one more big-time performance, Butler can thwart those questions and lift his team to the Eastern Conference finals for the third time in four seasons.
“I’m gonna enjoy my day off tomorrow, clear my head, along with everybody else,” Butler said, “and then we’ll be ready to battle come Friday.”