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The Boston Celtics are moving on to face the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, but Jimmy Butler made them work until the final buzzer.
And after everything he’d put Boston through in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics were surely holding their breath when he pulled up for three in a 98-96 game with 16.6 seconds left.
Steve Jones Jr. @stevejones20
It felt like Tatum was waiting on a double that didn’t come. Miami gets the stop. Jimmy Butler went for it. pic.twitter.com/E6kxaETlGQ
You may have felt the collective sigh of relief let out by Celtics fans after Butler came up short. You surely felt the tension that led up to that shot too.
Just over three minutes earlier, Boston was up 13. The game felt done, or at least close to it. But the Miami Heat weren’t going to quit on their home floor. And an 11-0 run gave Jimmy his chance.
It was 98-85 before Kyle Lowry hit a mid-range jumper. A Max Strus dunk then cut the lead to single digits. With just over a minute left, Victor Oladipo got the rim and trimmed the lead to seven. Then Lowry scored again. And finally, Strus hit a dribble pull-up three going right that put Miami within one possession of the Finals.
Steve Jones Jr. @stevejones20
All 11 points in the run were scored by Heat players not named Butler. But make no mistake—there was no way Miami would have had the chance it did without him.
There’s leaving it all on the floor, and then there’s what Butler did for Miami.
After one of the greatest individual Heat playoff games of all time in Game 6–when he went for 47 points, nine boards, eight assists and four steals in 46 minutes–Butler played all 48 in Game 7. He had 35 points and nine rebounds, but the stat line doesn’t begin to do him justice.
For prolonged stretches of the last two games (really, this entire playoff run), Miami’s offense seemed entirely reliant on Butler. When everyone else stalled out, he almost always had a way (and the will) to get to the bucket, draw a foul or hit a pull-up jumper.
In 17 playoff games, he averaged 27.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.4 threes. He leads the NBA in playoff wins over replacement player, and it’s not particularly close.
Butler carried the Heat to this point.
But this is 2022, when social media reactions feel as connected to the NBA as the traditional game recaps in newspapers used to be.
Even after everything Butler did throughout the postseason, particularly in Games 6 and 7 of this series, plenty of people couldn’t help but wonder if he made the right call.
NBA.com’s John Schuhmann shared video of a strikingly similar situation Butler found himself in as a Philadelphia 76er in 2019:
John Schuhmann @johnschuhmann
Others were, uh, less tactful:
Jimmy butler with 18 whole seconds left down by 2 with no shot clock pic.twitter.com/51jBJPHzGR
Were there other options for Butler? Absolutely.
Dakhil and Schuhmann nailed one. Miami was in semi-transition, with only Al Horford and Jaylen Brown in position to detain Butler. He may have been able to get around Horford. If Brown came over to help, Oladipo may have been open for a kickout. In that situation, either Celtic may have been overzealous enough to commit a foul. Scoring with the clock stopped would’ve been huge for the Heat.
But there are a lot of “may haves” in there, and there are plenty of reasons Boston is headed to the Finals. Its team defense may be chief among them.
After playing 47 minutes and 43 seconds, there’s no guarantee Butler had the burst or angle he wanted to get by Horford. Since January 1, few (if any) players had any answers against this unit. For the last two games, Butler had plenty. He’d demonstrated an ability to read, dissect and attack this defense.
If he’d made the shot, the internet would be loudly and repeatedly celebrating the decision.
Butler was the best player on the floor this series, and he did more than enough to earn the trust of his team, his coach and an entire fanbase.
Riding momentum and with a chance to take the lead, he took his shot. And he spent the entire postseason earning the right to do so.