When the shock and sting of Derrick White’s buzzer-beating putback, Jimmy Butler walked into the Miami Heat’s locker room, faced his teammates and shouldered the blame. The Heat had nearly overcome one of Butler’s most inefficient playoff games of his career to eliminate the Boston Celtics and advance to the NBA Finals. Instead, Butler and the Heat were left to ruminate on how close they were to avoiding making the wrong kind of history.
They have one more chance to do so in Monday’s Game 7 in Boston, but Miami will need a better performance from Butler, who shot just 5 of 21 in Saturday’s 104-103 loss. All will be forgiven if Butler can wring out enough to lead the Heat to a road win. If the Heat drop their fourth straight game, they will forever be known as the first team in NBA history to blow a 3-0 series lead in the playoffs.
“I told the guys in the locker room, that if I play better, we’re not even in this position, honestly speaking,” Butler said after Saturday’s loss. “And I will be better .”
Butler had been one of the top performers of the postseason, helping the Heat upset the No. 1 seed Milwaukee Bucks in the first round and dispatch the New York Knicks in the second round before leading the Heat to a 3-0 lead in these Eastern Conference finals.
Little has gone right for him since then. Butler was out-dueled by Jayson Tatum in Game 4, held to 14 points in Game 5 and appeared passive for much of Game 6. Butler did manage to score Miami’s final 10 points, including a 3-pointer and three clutch free throws in the final moments to give his team the lead with 3.0 seconds remaining. But the Heat will need a more complete performance Monday night.
“If I’m better from jump street, we are not even in that position,” Butler said. “If I don’t (shoot) 5-for-21 and turn the ball over and all of this stuff, it’s a different story. I’ve got on a different hat up here and we’re getting ready to go to the Finals.”
In many ways, Game 6 had all the necessary ingredients for a Heat win to close out the series. Miami’s role players made shots, going 14 of 30 from 3-point range as a team. The Celtics, meanwhile, went just 7 of 35 from distance. The Heat also kept turnovers low (five) and neutralized Boston’s rebounding advantage despite the decision to go with a smaller starting lineup.
But Butler and Bam Adebayo struggled, combining for an inefficient 35 points on 9 of 37 from the field to leave the door open for Boston to extend the series. Butler, who’s averaging 39 minutes per game in the playoffs, logged 47 minutes in Game 6 and appeared to lack his usual burst and lift in the paint.
Butler, 33, has led Miami to the precipice of a championship in two of the previous three seasons, starting with his gutsy showing in the 2020 Bubble. This year, he and his teammates have overcome a disappointing regular season and injuries to key players in order to muscle their way to being one win from facing the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Finals.
Should Butler uncork one more vintage performance to rival his 47-point masterpiece in Game 6 or his 48-minute, 35-point effort in Game 7 of last year’s conference finals and he will take one step closer to earning his elusive first championship ring. It won’t be easy. Tatum is 5-1 in Game 7s and is capable of delivering his own knockout blow, such as his 51 points to eliminate the Philadelphia 76ers in this year’s semi-finals. After the Celtics beat the Heat on their home floor in last year’s conference finals, this is familiar territory for all involved.
“You’re going to get the same test until you pass it, I swear,” Butler said. “We were in this same position last year. We can do it. I know that we will do it.”