Miami Heat fail to eliminate Knicks as Jimmy Butler finally looks human

May 10, 2023; New York, New York, USA; Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) looks to drive past New York Knicks center Isaiah Hartenstein (55) during game five of the 2023 NBA playoffs at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports
May 10, 2023; New York, New York, USA; Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) looks to drive past New York Knicks center Isaiah Hartenstein (55) during game five of the 2023 NBA playoffs at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports /

All playoffs, the Miami Heat could count on Jimmy Butler. Keep things close, or even carve enough into a double-digit deficit, and Butler would inevitably take over in the biggest moments. That didn’t happen Wednesday night, but there was a moment when it nearly did.

The Heat had clawed back from a 19-point hole and were within six with four minutes remaining. Butler drove in for a layup, then hit an 18-footer on the next possession, then went to the other end and got a hand on RJ Barrett’s 3-pointer, got fouled, and made a free throw. That 140-second burst cut the deficit to just two points with 2:37 to go.

Those five would be Butler’s only points during a fourth quarter in which he played all 12 minutes. The full takeover never happened and the Heat lost, 112-103, at Madison Square Garden to bring the series to 3-2. Game 6 is Friday night in Miami.

“We were never fully able to get over the hump,” coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Butler finished with 19 points on 5 of 12 shooting, nine assists, seven rebounds and just one turnover. This wasn’t a bad performance. It was a typical, hyper-efficient Butler game. But typical isn’t what got the Heat to within a win of returning to the Eastern Conference finals.

Butler scorched the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks by averaging 37.6 points on 59.7% shooting in the first round. In his first three games against the Knicks, he averaged 26.7 points on 48.1% shooting, 7 rebounds and 5.7 assists. Among players remaining in the postseason, only Stephen Curry (9.9) entered tonight averaging more points in the fourth quarter than Butler (9).

Which makes what happened down the stretch of Wednesday’s game all the more confusing. After that free throw, Butler did not take another shot over the final 2 ½ minutes. In that time, he fouled Barrett while going up for a rebound, then turned the ball over while trying to turn the corner against a tired and hobbled Quentin Grimes.

Just before the events in this clip, Grimes had slammed into an Adebayo screen, hurt his leg and fell to the floor. He scrambled back into the play and Butler, smelling blood, decided to attack him. This was in stark contrast to Game 1, when Butler turned his right ankle in the fourth quarter and spent most of the final moments playing decoy. The Knicks never targeted him and may still regret it.

It’s unclear how much Butler’s ankle is still bothering him. He missed Game 2 and got five full days off before playing in Game 3. He scored 28 and 27 points in his next two games, but was listed as questionable on the injury report for Games 4 and 5.

Before the costly turnover, he looks slow trying to get around Grimes and loses his handle when Grimes swipes at the ball. Very un-Butler like. He’ll never admit if the ankle is bothering him — and Grimes is a very good defender with long arms and fast hands — but it’s fair to wonder how much the burden of playing 40-plus minutes and shouldering the scoring load is weighing on him.

It would help if the Heat could make some shots. After shooting a blistering 45% in the first round, the Heat are shooting 31.2% from 3-point range for the series. They shot 30.2% from distance on Wednesday, missing heaps of open jumpers.

“We got the looks that we wanted,” Bam Adebayo said. “We just didn’t make them.”

Part of the reason Butler shot only 12 times is because the Knicks spent most of the game double-teaming him. As Butler said after dishing 11 assists in Game 4, he loves being double-teamed because it means a teammate is open. On Wednesday, he routinely found the open man, who routinely missed an open shot.

“I was making all the right plays,” Butler said. “I’m not a scorer, anyways. I don’t know how many I had. Nineteen or something like that? That’s enough for us to win if we make a couple more shots.”

In previous games, the Heat had made up for poor shooting by taking control of other factors — mainly on the boards and in transition. On Wednesday, however, they were out-rebounded, 50-34, and ceded 29 points off turnovers. This was the first game all postseason in which the Heat were this thoroughly outplayed.

“There were a bunch of wide-open ones, but the tenor of the game was probably in their favor,” Spoelstra said.

They should still win this series. They’re the better team and have the best player and a coach squarely in his prime. If they do make the conference finals, Philadelphia or Boston are in for a real fight.

The Heat as a whole are playing their best basketball this postseason. Kyle Lowry and Kevin Love have solidified what was a shaky bench, Duncan Robinson and Max Strus are making shots, Adebayo remains as effective as ever on defense and Gabe Vincent has left his fingerprints on many high-stakes moments.

But the biggest difference between the Heat’s up-and-down regular season and this surprising playoff turnaround has been Butler. To accomplish what had once been unimaginable, they’ll need Butler to be more than the 19-point, seven-rebound, nine-assist regular-season-version of Jimmy. They need Playoff Jimmy.

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