by Evan Bruner
Everyone loves a good underdog story. No matter what sport, fans gravitate toward the little guy, the one that everyone else has counted out. Unfortunately for basketball fans, the NBA’s lack of parity in recent years has led to many highly predictable champions. However, Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat continue to be the outlier of all outliers. The literal last team to secure a playoff berth is now up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals and is on the verge of making one of the most unlikely finals appearances in league history.
This isn’t a case of luck or good fortune, either. In fact, one might argue it’s been the opposite. As the eighth seed, the Heat drew the top-seed Milwaukee Bucks out of the gate. While Miami did benefit from Giannis Antetokounmpo missing time with an injury, they went 3-0 in games he played and ultimately won the series in five games.
The Heat didn’t make it out of that series unscathed, though. Guards Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo went down with significant injuries. Oladipo’s injury was a season-ender, and Herro may not be available until the Finals. Both players were meaningful contributors, and for a team that barely snuck into the playoffs, every loss hurts. Yet somehow, someway, the Heat have managed to overcome it all. After dispatching the New York Knicks in six games in the second round, Miami has gone up 2-0 on the mighty Boston Celtics in a rematch of last year’s conference finals clash.
On the surface, this doesn’t make sense, but neither does the team’s best player. Jimmy Butler is an accomplished veteran whose merits may earn him a Hall of Fame selection when it’s all said in done. But not even that explains the mythical creature he becomes in the postseason. Playoff Jimmy Butler isn’t a gimmick; he’s a game-wrecker, and in a conference finals slate that consists of stars such as LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, and Jayson Tatum, he’s become the talk of the NBA world. His numbers have shot up across the board while maintaining stellar efficiency.
Jimmy Butler:— StatMuse (@statmuse) May 20, 2023
This season — This playoffs —
22.9 PPG 31.1 PPG
5.9 RPG 6.6 RPG
5.3 APG 5.6 APG
1.8 SPG 2.2 SPG
The NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint. This is a big reason for load management and other tactics that have led to star players seeing less regular season playing time. Butler plays a more passive game during the season. He works as a floor general and sets up his teammates. This play style has proven valuable and has made Butler the Heat’s best player. But this version of Butler is nowhere to be found in the playoffs. He becomes aggressive, assertive, and borderline unguardable.
Since joining the Heat, Jimmy Butler has more 35+ point playoff games than anyone in the league.— nick wright (@getnickwright) May 20, 2023
In that same time frame, he has the same number of 35+ point regular season games as Terry Rozier.
There is simply no precedent for him as a player.
Butler has stepped up on the defensive end too, leading all postseason players in steals per game for the second straight year. This all-out brand of basketball on both ends of the floor doesn’t fatigue Butler, either. He’s led Miami to several improbable last-minute comebacks this postseason.
These late home heroics have propelled to Heat to an unheard-of 6-2 record when trailing by double-digits this postseason. For reference, the rest of the league is a combined 15-60 in such situations. From Butler’s ability to lead to Erik Spoelstra’s coaching prowess to role players stepping up when it matters most, the Heat have become one of the most fascinating teams in the league.
It takes a lot more to win a championship than being interesting or likable, but with Butler’s propensity for rising to the occasion and the Heat’s ability to close games, they’re no longer long shots; they’re bonafide contenders only six wins away from the ultimate prize.