The last time the Miami Heat saw one player take over whole arenas, tilt entire playoff series and squeeze opponents mercilessly in defining moments, it was a name canonized with a jersey in the rafters.
“In those moments of truth, would you ever want to give Dwyane Wade an open 3?’ Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
There was that name.
“You would not, because he’s a killer,’ Spoelstra said. “Jimmy has a lot of those same qualities. He’ll find a way to kill you.”
Jimmy Butler. Jimmy Buckets. “Jimmy Freakin’ Butler,” as Charles Barkley said on TNT, after the Heat star dropped a career playoff high of 45 points in the Heat’s Game 2 win against Atlanta.
On a plateau like Dwayne Wade?
“To me, he has a lot of those same qualities,’ Spoelstra said.
We love the idea of magic in sports. Magic games. Magic runs. Magic seasons. There are magic names, too, and none is more magic with the Heat than Wade. So Spoelstra knew what he was doing here. He knew the magical comparison he was making, even the carrot he was putting before Butler to reach night after playoff night.
The question covered how Butler, like Wade, was a donkey of a 3-point shooter until the money was put on the playoff table. Then he took over FTX Arena. Butler, a 22-percent shooter on 3-pointers this season, made four-of-seven in Game 2. He played all five positions on defense.
He picked up an otherwise undistinguished Heat night in a way that, yes, Wade once did. Butler isn’t Wade. He’s not. But he can flash like him on nights like this. He did in Game 2. He did as the Heat ran to the Finals two years ago in the pandemic bubble of Orlando.
“When its about winning, they’ll find a way to kill you,’ Spoelstra said. “Look at a scouting report, look at numbers,, but … the next game it might be the free-throw line, it might be attacking, it might be playmaking and, you know, that’s part of his genius.”
Wade’s genius? Butler’s genius? You see the dots connecting on nights like this.
This is an ensemble of a Heat roster, any of a half-dozen players capable of carrying the load on a night. Duncan Robinson was the star of Game 1, making eight-of-nine 3-point shots. That caused LeBron James to tweet, “Player development there is damn good.”
Robinson didn’t take a shot in five Game 2 minutes. That’s this odd Heat way. Gabe Vincent was the cameo star. Max Strus and Caleb Martin had their moments. “An organizational win,’ the idea is for the names they’ve uncovered.
Butler is the ultimate organizational win. The Heat coveted him when three franchises spit him out. One of them, Philadelphia, looks next for the Heat in the second round. But Butler can be a handful, too. He can make the Heat look split and vulnerable, as he did in a time-out dust-up with Spoelstra and veteran Udonis Haslem last month.
What he brings is an odd edge some great players do.
“That dark side,’ as veteran guard Kyle Lowry called it, “to push other people to be better.”
It’s why Wade told him the best fit for his demeanor was Miami. It’s why Butler said upon signing with the Heat, “When I heard about their hard-hearted culture, I knew I needed that in my life.”
Butler made the Heat become the Heat again. He took them out of the goofy Hassan Whiteside experiment, past the attempts to mold the Dion Waiters and James Johnsons into their hard-working mold. You either fit or you don’t.
Atlanta dared Butler to beat them in Game 2. Atlanta coach Nate McMillan said how their defense hugged close to shooters like Robinson and Tyler Herro. That left Butler or Lowry to find the open spots. Butler did this night in a manner that closed the series.
The Heat don’t just have a 2-0 lead. They have Atlanta needing to win four of the next five. They have the Hawks giving the loser’s lament, too.
“If the refs are gonna let them be as physical as they are and not get calls, I mean, it’s gonna be hard to do really do anything anyway,’ Atlanta star Trae Young said.
The question for the Heat remains who they are. A tough team, sure. A championship team? We’ll see. Some of that depends on if Butler can be Tuesday’s hero more often. It’s a chorus of singers on this roster, but he’s the lead. You pick players to win as much as teams in the NBA. LeBron. Wade. Now Giannis.
Spoelstra dismissed a question about the need for the traditional star, saying, “Everyone’s looking for the same conventional box of winning a championship. It can be done in a lot of different ways.”
Only three Heat players have 45 points, five rebounds and five assists in a playoff game. Lebron. Dwayne. Jimmy. That’s all you need to know of Butler’s Game 2. He was Wade. A killer. Jimmy Effin’ Butler.