BOSTON — In a playoff series that had long since lost any semblance of order or predictability, Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat on Friday night emerged as a rare source of stability, and perhaps the only one.
He passed flat-footed defenders for 3 points. He negotiated rush hour traffic for layups. He drew fouls and whipped passes to his teammates and left the Celtics and their fans in a state of despondency.
When so much else seemed uncertain, Butler was a sure thing. It was the sentiment shared by everyone in the building, for better or for worse. The moment he cradled the basketball outside the 3-point line at the end of the fourth quarter, taking half time to survey the scenery in front of him, he carried himself with a certain air inevitability: Was there any doubt about what would happen next?
The Celtics, so famous for their defense, made it easy for him. They mishandled the mission, leaving Butler with a clear path to the hoop, and he pounced, driving for a lay-up and soaking up the contact for good measure. It was a game-winning game that shattered a draw, as well as the Celtics’ resolve.
“His will to compete is as high as anyone who has played this game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Leading the Heat to a 111-103 win over the Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Butler ensured the series would be pushed to its absolute limit: Game 7 is Sunday night in Miami.
Butler had 47 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists while shooting 16 of 29 from the field and 4 of 8 from 3-point range. He did it on an ailing right knee after two of the toughest games of his career. He said he was buoyed by a pre-game phone call from former Heat guard Dwyane Wade.
“D-Wade never hits me until his voice is really, really needed,” Butler said. “And it was.”
Butler also had a one-sided pregame chat with PJ Tucker and Markieff Morris, two of his teammates. Tucker and Morris had a request for Butler: “Yo, we need 50.”
“He looked at us, didn’t say a word,” Tucker recalled. “He just nodded, continued. I was like, oh, yeah, he’s about to play. He is locked up.
Spoelstra has described “Game 7” as the two best words in professional sports, and he wouldn’t get an argument from the Golden State Warriors, who await the winner of the NBA Finals, starting Thursday in San Francisco. As Boston and Miami continue to hammer each other, Golden State needed only five games to eliminate the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals.
“Rest, ice, massage – all those good things,” Butler said when asked how he would treat his knee heading into Game 7. “The same thing every day.”
The Heat had just had two disappointing performances in a row. They had lost the game 4 by 20 shooting 33.3% from the field. They had lost Game 5 by 13 points while shooting 31.9% – at home, no less, where their fans walked out of the arena wondering if they would see the team again this season. After all, Butler had shot a total of 7 of 32 in those two misses while working with his injured knee.
In the immediate aftermath of Game 5, however, with the Heat facing elimination, Spoelstra did something interesting in his press conference: he channeled his inner Mister Rogers.
“You have to take advantage of it,” he said. “You do. If you want to break through and get a ticket to the final, you’re going to have to do some ridiculously difficult things.
He added: “We are still alive. We have the opportunity to play in front of a great audience and the opportunity to create a memory that you will remember for a long time. That’s all we’re thinking about right now.”
Spoelstra would know, having coached the Heat to two titles and five Finals appearances. In his 14th season, he fully understands the playoffs, the stakes, the pressures and the possibilities.
If Spoelstra delivered the same message of opportunity to his players before Game 6, Butler must have absorbed every word of it before using it as fuel against the Celtics.
“His aggressiveness opens everything up for everyone,” Tucker said.
In the first quarter alone, Butler shot 6 of 10 from the field and made both of his 3-point attempts while collecting 14 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists. As a team, the Heat scored five 3-pointers in the first quarter, which was especially impressive considering they went from 7 of 45 to 3-pointers in Game 5.
“I think we played with a little more confidence,” said Kyle Lowry, who had 18 points and 10 assists in the win. “We played with some punch tonight, and it feels good to do that.”
While Butler’s late-game layup gave Miami the lead for good, it sealed the victory with less than a minute to go when he took a spinning jump shot from 20 feet with the shot clock set to expire.
“It’s a different era,” he said. “It’s a different team.”
And Butler, still chasing his first championship, seems determined to make his own mark. During his press conference, he shared the dais with Lowry, who offered a questioning expression when Butler said he had played a “decent” game. Lowry was asked to elaborate on Butler’s play.
“It’s amazing,” said Lowry, who completed his assessment with an expletive. “My fault. Don’t amend me, NBA It was a mistake, I promise you.
It was one of the only mistakes the Heat made all night.