Will ‘Playoff Jimmy’ Butler make an appearance in the NBA Finals?

Jun 4, 2023; Denver, CO, USA; Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) controls the ball against Denver Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) in the third quarter in game two of the 2023 NBA Finals at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 4, 2023; Denver, CO, USA; Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) controls the ball against Denver Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) in the third quarter in game two of the 2023 NBA Finals at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports /

Jimmy Butler has long pushed back on the notion of “Playoff Jimmy,” and he reemphasized that on Tuesday when asked about his modest scoring output during these NBA Finals.

“This Playoff Jimmy narrative is not a thing,” Butler said. “I’m not a scorer. I don’t press to score. I only press to win.”

Butler is averaging 17 points on 39.4% shooting through the first two games of the Miami Heat’s Finals matchup against the Denver Nuggets and hasn’t scored 30 points since Game 1 of the East finals. It’s led many to wonder if Butler’s best scoring games are behind him and, more crucially, if the Heat can win the championship without some classic Butler bangers.

Since averaging 37.6 points per game in the first round, Butler’s scoring average dropped to 24.7 points across the next two rounds. Meanwhile, his assist numbers have gone up every series. Against the Nuggets, Butler has 16 assists through two Finals games.

“I’ve done what I’ve needed to do to get us to 1-1,” Butler said. “I don’t pay attention to stats. As long as we win, everybody is playing great.”

As the Heat have advanced in the postseason, the way defenses approach Butler has changed. The Bucks defended Butler one-on-one, relying on Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo at various points to handle the assignment. It didn’t work. Butler scored 35, 25, 30, 56 and 42 points as the Heat upset the top-seeded Bucks in five games.

Against the Knicks, Butler saw more traps and double-teams designed to get the ball out of his hands. A sprained right ankle sustained in the first game sidelined him in Game 2 and sapped him of some of the explosiveness he had in the opening round. His scoring averages slipped and the Heat shot a playoff-low 30% from 3-point range in the series, but still managed to dispatch the Knicks in six gritty games.

Then in the East finals, the Celtics showed Butler bodies and crowded the paint to take away his drives. Butler was again a willing passer, but this time his teammates made shots as the Heat converted on nearly 44% of their 3s.

“It changes from series to series, maybe even game to game,” Butler said of the way defenses guard him. “If my guys are open, I’m throwing it every single time. … I’ve got so much faith in them. I can’t win without them. I’ve tried that before in other places where I just think I can do it (alone). No, that’s not the answer.

“I need those guys. I hope those guys need me a little bit, too. It’s perfect basketball. We love playing for and with one another. If you’re open, I’m passing it.”

In the Finals, the Nuggets have deployed Aaron Gordon as Butler’s primary defender, but are also dropping Nikola Jokic deep into the paint on Butler’s pick-and-rolls to take away his rim attacks.

“The way they defend, they’re prioritizing protecting the paint against him,” Spoelstra said. “So he has to make the right reads.”

The Heat understand that to win this series they need to make more 3-pointers than the Nuggets, who are big and strong enough to be efficient from 2-point range and are not a volume 3-point shooting team. Five of Butler’s nine assists in Miami’s Game 2 win in Denver led to 3-pointers. Against the Nuggets’ size, it’s hard work.

With Gordon on him, Butler uses a Bam Adebayo screen to create just enough space to get into the paint. Jokic drops and Gordon sprints back into the play. By then, Butler has an angle to get baseline. Butler tip-toes under the basket, drawing Denver’s defense in, before slinging the ball to Gabe Vincent, wide open on the left wing. Vincent went 4 of 6 on 3s, Strus went 4 for 10 and Duncan Robinson went 2 of 3 from distance — mostly generated off Butler’s drives.

“The combination of that and just how much attention (Butler) attracts makes him really hard to game plan for,” Robinson said. “A lot of us are beneficiaries of that, just with how unselfish he is out there.”

At times, Butler can be too unselfish. Drives to the basket can sputter when he’s not looking for his own shot and turn into fruitless kick-outs.

Or he can turn down open shots at the basket because he has pre-determined to pass.

Butler did not attempt a single free throw in Game 1 because of possessions like these, though he did do a better job of driving with intent in Game 2 and got five foul shots because of it. There is still room for Butler to be a more aggressive scorer, bait Denver’s defenders into fouling and create even more pressure. It’s fair to wonder how much Butler’s ankle is hindering him at this stage after averaging 40 minutes in 19 playoff games.

But Butler has remained steadfast in his commitment to “making the right play” and getting his teammates involved. Given that he’s three wins away from his first ring, it’s hard to argue it hasn’t been the right approach. There is always room for nit-picking, and Butler likely will need to score more for the Heat to win the championship, but they would not be here if not for Butler’s teammates stepping up.

“If your role players can step in and start playing great, it’s usually because they feel a confidence level from the best players, and that’s Jimmy and Bam,” Spoelstra said. “They infuse all of our guys to be aggressive.”

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