Jimmy Butler lifts the Miami Heat with a picture-perfect performance

BOSTON – The Miami Heat may have to clear some space in the championship alley.

That’s the name of the road from their stadium to the locker room filled with memories of wall-size grandeur from Miami’s past. Gary Payton kicked off the 2006 Finals comeback. Blood runs down Odonis Haslem’s face in the fourth quarter of a lively playoff. LeBron James’ icy stare into the iconic first quarter of his 45-point masterpiece to win Game 6 in Boston in 2012. And so much more.

Heat head Pat Riley sometimes takes guests on a long ride, stopping in front of huge portraits atop the deep red carpet to tell backstories.

Perhaps the photo from Friday night that appeared on the wall afterwards is of Jimmy Butler rising in front of the Boston Celtics bench playing in the 46th minute of a 6th Elimination game that is instantly engraved in the history books. Watch Marcus Smart, Defensive Player of the Year for 2021-22, and Derek White, the potential comeback champion, as Butler took to the air. Everyone in TD Garden stood, their eyes fixed on the butler.

Two days ago, he couldn’t jump anywhere close to that height. Four days ago, forget about it. But on this night his ailing right knee, which had begun to improve in the past two days after extensive treatment and as much rest as possible, allowed it to do so. Butler made the 20-foot smash jump with 43 seconds left to seal the Heat’s 111-103 victory to force Sunday’s Game of 7 (8:30 p.m. on ESPN).

“I don’t really care about the fans. I want to win,” Butler said. “I want to play basketball the right way. I will do whatever my team needs, my teammates.”

After his knee got aggravated in Game 3 of the series – he’d been battling an IT squad problem throughout the playoffs – Butler was a shell to himself. He played when he probably shouldn’t have played, and that showed up right away. Its explosion and lift were almost non-existent. By the middle of Game Five, the Celtics’ defense publicly admitted what anyone could see as Boston backed away and cared for the others: Butler wasn’t a threat.

But just minutes into Game Six, Butler jumped into a lane to score his first four steals and beat everyone to the other end to score the fast score. A few moments later, he exploded off his feet to make a rebound in traffic. Immediately another message appeared: Butler is back – and so is Hit.

Butler carried the Miami team throughout the match and collected 47 points with nine rebounds and eight assists. Having hit the error line six times while limping during games 3-5, he’s been 11 times in game 6. And he’s made it all right. He even made the season’s highest with four three-pointers.

When it was over, he tied for the third-most points in a road elimination game in the 75-year history of the NBA. He scored or assisted with 68 points, the most in a conference final elimination match in history, according to ESPN Statistics and Information.

“Jimmy Butler is a great competitor and he really is,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said. “You could misidentify him in many different ways, but his competitive will is as high as anyone who has played this game. He has made his mark in this game.”

Spoelstra, now a veteran of dozens of these high-stakes games (especially in Boston), has been consistent and confident all week. Even as the Heat has been rocking through the loss in games 4 and 5, he’s struggling to break 80 points.

Friday morning, as the Heat were going through a light workout at a health club near their hotel – and after a quick assessment saw that Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Hero would miss a third game in a row – Spoilstra was in his bag, realizing he would take a “great opportunity” when “he feels he and his team that they are alive.”

There was light in Spoelstra’s eyes and confidence in his demeanor. He lives his life with incredible discipline, with the help of Riley’s guidance and coaches in this way. He wears the same outfit every day and never stops doing the job no matter the position.

This fortitude was demonstrated amid the turmoil at Butler and the rest of the team. Kyle Lowery showed up on the court three and a half hours before the tip in an effort to ease a struggling hamstring and then worked his way up to 18 points and 10 assists. After missing 19 consecutive three-pointers over three games, Max Strus finally ran into desperation in the third quarter and then made two more.

“It’s not like I guarantee anything. I just know how intertwined our guys are,” Spoilstra said hours later after his team scored a massive win, his mood barely high. “What you hope to bring out is the best in you and a different level. Over the course of a long series like this, you’ll be pushed uncomfortably. Sometimes you’ll lose along the way.”

The Heat couldn’t afford another loss, and it seemed likely that they were headed towards it. Even the opponent in the finals assumed on national television, as Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green did Thursday, that the Celtics would advance. They still do it. Miami’s win on Friday night didn’t settle the series — just another chance.

“We’ve been saying it throughout this whole series, ‘It’s not over yet,’” Butler said. “We got Game 7 in the crib.”

Leave a Comment