As Jimmy Butler walked off the floor of the Sixers’ arena on Thursday night, having just punched his ticket to the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in three years, he asked himself a rhetorical question a few Philly fans have probably considered at some point over the last three years: “Tobias Harris over me?”
Butler, of course, played for the Sixers before they traded him to the Heat in the summer of 2019. Three years to the day of the last game he played for Philadelphia, Butler returned the favor by knocking out the team that chose other stars to pair with perennial MVP candidate Joel Embiid. And he did so in the midst of the best postseason of his career.
It’s hard to overstate how good Butler has been during these playoffs. The Heat have mostly flown under the radar after two sleepy series marred by injuries, and it’s been a disservice to the brilliance of Butler. The 32-year-old has been neck-and-neck with Giannis Antetokounmpo in terms of biggest two-way impact during the postseason. And particularly on the offensive end of the floor, Jimmy Buckets has shined like never before—better even than his run to the Finals in the Bubble.
Butler is averaging 28.7 points on 52.5% shooting, 7.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists through two rounds. He’s scored at least 40 points in two games and at least 30 in three others. Of all players who’ve played at least six games, Butler is third in scoring behind only Giannis and Luka Dončić. Those two are also the only other players besides Butler to meet the same benchmarks in scoring, rebounding and assists. And it’s Jimmy who has been the most efficient, posting the highest marks in field goal percentage, three-point percentage and free-throw percentage out of that exclusive club. (He’s collecting 2.1 steals a game for fun as well.)
There’s been a little commotion about Butler’s three-point shooting, and rightfully so. He hasn’t shot even 25% from deep in a season yet with Miami. And the long-distance shot essentially wasn’t part of his game during the regular season, as Butler attempted only two a night. In the playoffs, Butler is shooting 4.4 threes a game and connecting on 36.4% of them. That’s shockingly good! Seriously, here is a list of players Butler is shooting (or has shot) better than from three in the playoffs: Stephen Curry, Jayson Tatum, Kevin Durant, C.J. McCollum and, for good measure, his teammate Tyler Herro.
Frankly, there is almost no way to explain Butler’s uptick in conversions from deep. Sure, he works on that shot daily if you watch his Instagram stories. It’s still unfathomable to see him shoot so much better on a higher volume. And yet that may not even be the most impressive part of Butler’s postseason run.
Butler has been absolutely lights out in the paint through the first two rounds. He is shooting seven attempts a night inside the restricted area and hitting 71.4% of his attempts, the only non-center with at least five attempts in that zone shooting at least 70%. He’s also been great between the foul line and the restricted area, shooting 61.1%, fourth-best among all players attempting at least three shots from there a night. Both percentages are improvements from the regular season, and once closest to the hoop especially, Butler seems more keen on scoring than playmaking as he often was during the regular season. Butler’s footwork frequently buys him advantageous looks, as his pivots shake eager defenders near the hoop. (And he’s not scared of contact either, getting to the line 7.8 times a contest.)
But where Butler has improved the most so far is in the pick-and-roll. He was running 6.2 a night entering Thursday’s win and averaging 1.38 points per possession as the ball handler. That’s an absurd number, and better than renowned screen-and-roll maestros such as Luka, Steph, Chris Paul, and more. (In fact, Butler had the best points per possession of anyone running at least four pick and rolls a game entering Thursday.) In the regular season, Butler initiated only 4.3 PnRs a game and averaged 0.92 points per possession.
Butler’s improved finishing and dedication to scoring has certainly helped juice his pick-and-roll numbers. So has the Heat’s scheme. Erik Spoelstra has mixed in a lot of empty, side screen and rolls for Butler, and the space plus rolling prowess of Bam Adebayo and Dewayne Dedmon has given him plenty of room to operate. The empty side actions largely prevent help defenders from crashing down at Butler on the elbow, who can deter him from getting into the lane and force him to settle for more midrange shots. When Butler only has a center to beat—even if that center is a feared rim protector like Embiid—he’s been adept at finishing inside, or finding someone like P.J. Tucker roaming the baseline as defenders rotate to help.
The offensive improvement is a welcome return to form for Butler, who struggled mightily in a humbling sweep at the hands of the Bucks in last year’s first round. Which brings us to the conference finals. Miami will play either a Boston team with a switchy, suffocating defense, or the same Milwaukee team that locked up Butler a season ago, with perhaps the best defender in the world in Antetokounmpo. Butler and the rest of the Heat have passed every test so far in the playoffs, but a far greater challenge awaits in the coming round. The question of whether or not Butler’s offensive improvement is the result of a small sample size or an ascension to another level will be answered definitively in the next series. Can he really keep finishing like a big at the rim, shooting better from deep than Steph, and running pick and rolls like a Hall-of-Fame point guard?
For now, Butler can enjoy the full-circle moment after his 32 points eliminated the team that seemingly didn’t believe he could be a part of their long-term future. (Harris and James Harden combined for 25, by the way.) Butler is in a position to lead the Heat to the Finals for the second time in his three-year stint with the franchise. And he’s doing so by having the highest scoring, most efficient postseason of his 10 trips to the playoffs.
That sounds like the kind of player you’d want to keep around.
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