Can the Heat beat the Bulls, advance to playoffs without Jimmy Butler?

Jimmy Butler has been ruled out for Friday's final play-in game against the Bulls. So who needs to step up for the Miami Heat to make the playoffs?
Miami Heat v Chicago Bulls
Miami Heat v Chicago Bulls / Jamie Sabau/GettyImages

The Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls played all four of their games between November and December. Both teams have changed quite a bit since then, whether through trades (in the case of the Heat) or emerging building blocks (in the case of the Bulls). 

The last meeting, on Dec. 16, was decided by Jimmy Butler’s game-winning jumper. Butler will not be available for this one after sustaining an MCL sprain in Wednesday’s play-in loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Heat announced that Butler will be sidelined for “several weeks.”

Butler was also the one who guarded Coby White for most of the last matchup. White was just beginning to blossom into the player who hung 42 on the Atlanta Hawks Wednesday to advance to Friday’s final play-in game but the Heat saw the signs when he scored 26 in Chicago’s win on Dec. 14. Caleb Martin and Kyle Lowry drew the lion’s share of that assignment in that matchup. Two days later, they put Butler on him. He still scored 22.

The Heat will likely go back to Martin with Butler sidelined. Haywood Highsmith will see some minutes, and the Heat will be comfortable if White tries to get Bam Adebayo switched onto him. But White is a dangerous man. He’s shooting 40% on pull-up 3-pointers, which will test Miami’s zone defense and whatever other schemes Erik Spoelstra comes up with in this do-or-die scenario.

The Heat were fortunate that Philadelphia’s Tyrese Maxey missed 10 of his 16 shots on Wednesday. Defense was and will be part of the equation, but so will luck. They’ll also have to hope White on Friday doesn’t go off the way he did against the Hawks on Wednesday.

Where do the Heat have an advantage?

The Bulls are 27th in defensive rating since the All-Star break and, to make matters worse, star defender Alex Caruso is doubtful for Friday night with an ankle sprain that he sustained Wednesday. 

“We'll see how it goes in the next couple of days,” Caruso told reporters after the game. “My mindset is to play until my body tells me that I can't."

We’ll see.

If Caruso can’t go, an already vulnerable Bulls defense will spring even more leaks. Caruso only played about five minutes in the December matchups but spent most of the first two November games chasing Duncan Robinson around. Robinson was available for the Heat on Wednesday but did not play as he deals with a lingering lower back injury. TBD if he’ll be able to go on Friday, and Spoelstra isn’t giving any hints. Terry Rozier, out since April 9 with a neck injury, has already been ruled out.

But if Robinson can go, then the Heat will have a pair of ignitable guards (to use Spoelstra’s phrase), including Tyler Herro, to attack Chicago’s perimeter defense.

X-factor: Bam Adebayo

For much of the Sixers loss, Adebayo was a non-factor (10 points on nine shots and one assist). Perhaps he was bothered by Joel Embiid’s length, however limited the reigning MVP was. But this Bulls matchup is much more susceptible to a big game for 13.

Adebayo once had a problem with Nikola Vucevic but that’s not a thing anymore. In his two games against the Bulls this season, Adebayo averaged 23.5 points on a cool 61.5% shooting. Neither Vucevic nor Andre Drummond have the nimble feet needed to keep Adebayo from getting to the basket when he’s being aggressive.

If Adebayo is engaged and hunting his shot, he could have a big game. The Bulls want their centers to press, even away from the basket. Adebayo doesn’t have to settle for 15-footers. He can put the ball on the ground and get to the basket. Miami can run pick-and-roll to get him on the move or let him iso on an empty side. Either way, the Heat can win this game – with or without Butler – if Adebayo plays like a two-way star.