BOSTON — The scene in the Miami Heat locker room after Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals was no different than any other job site in the latest city the eighth seed unwound from an honest day's work. Music turned up, Harpoon IPAs all around and appreciation for the dude who carried the heaviest burden.
"We can beat anybody," several members of the Heat's basketball operations staff told Yahoo Sports prior to Wednesday's workmanlike 123-116 upset of the second-seeded Celtics. You expect to hear that from a team, especially one that eliminated the Milwaukee Bucks and New York Knicks in the first two rounds of the playoffs, but the matter-of-fact manner in which they tell you conveys a belief that funnels from the top through Jimmy Butler, whose 35 points, 7 assists, 6 steals and 5 rebounds marked another heroic effort.
"Anything is possible," Butler said after playing 43 minutes, including the entire second half. "I’m playing at an incredible level because they’re allowing me to do so. They’re not putting a limit on my game. They’re trusting me with the ball, on the defensive end, and I think that’s what any basketball player wants. That’s what anybody wants out of life, just to be wanted, be appreciated and just let you go out there and rock."
Butler denied the existence of "Playoff Jimmy" after his 56 points swung the Heat's first-round series over the Bucks, but there's no denying it now. The 33-year-old has as many 40-point nights in 107 career playoff games as he does in 754 regular season outings, and his latest performance was as good as any of them.
"Obviously, when you get to the playoffs, the level of competition is a little bit higher, and Jimmy is one of the greatest competitors that I’ve ever met," Udonis Haslem, whose two-decade Heat tenure has spanned the stays of Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James in Miami, told Yahoo Sports. "So, when it gets to high levels of competition, I’m taking Jimmy all day, seven days a week and twice on Sunday.”
Game 2 is scheduled in Boston on Friday (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT) before Game 3 in Miami on ... Sunday, and Butler's teammates are already running out of ways to describe his most recent assault on the East.
"Jimmy’s amazing," said Gabe Vincent. "He’s amazing."
“It’s fun," added Kyle Lowry, who scored 13 of his 15 points in the second quarter of Game 1. "It’s just great to be a part of this run he’s been on since I don’t know how long it’s been now. That’s what he does. He’s one of the best players in the world for a reason. It’s just a joy to watch him. For a guy who wants it so bad, and he works so hard at his craft, it’s important to enjoy his success, and he gives us all the confidence to be successful, aggressive and assertive. That’s what makes him special. He’s not all about him."
Miami trailed by 13 points in the first half and 71-59 a minute into the third quarter, but that was close enough for a team that follows its leader's steady hand. The Heat never stop coming, and Butler instills the confidence in his teammates that if they can just keep the game close, he will carry them to the finish line.
“He’s a championship player," veteran Heat forward Kevin Love told Yahoo Sports. "He’s the type of guy who elevates his game and is at his best when his best is needed. Not to say in the regular season he’s not that, because he’s an All-NBA guy, but he just has another X-factor, another level to him that the great ones have. We’re following that. He elevates his game, and he’s a guy we look at to lead us and to take us there.”
Bam Adebayo is no different. The brutish All-Star center, who added 20 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists, ignited a 13-1 run that evaporated Boston's lead in two minutes time, and Butler carried the Heat home.
He willed a tip-in and-1 between Celtics players Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown to give his team the lead for good midway through the third, 79-78. Butler disrupted a lob to Robert Williams III within seconds, and the resulting transition layup cushioned the lead enough for Max Strus to double it three possessions later. Four times Boston cut into that advantage, and Butler responded at every turn, scoring 9 straight points, culminating in a 3-pointer that pushed Miami's edge to 95-87 inside of two minutes left in the third quarter.
The margin ballooned to 12 by the end of a quarter in which the Heat scored a franchise-record 46 points to Boston's 25. The Celtics trimmed the deficit to 5 several times in the fourth, but Butler responded in kind. In five minutes between finding Adebayo for a floater and Caleb Martin for a corner 3-pointer, Butler swiped three steals over a span of seven defensive possessions and drilled two more midrange jumpers.
Then came the dagger, a 27-footer to beat the shot clock and push the lead to 120-110 with 1:03 left. The bucket gave him five playoff games with multiple 3s after he did that just seven times in the regular season. Playoff Jimmy. The man transforms from an All-NBA player to an all-time great when it's time to punch in.
“What we used to do with LeBron, we knew what we needed just to calm the game down and get a good shot, whether it be him or somebody else," Love, who reached four straight Finals with James in Cleveland, told Yahoo Sports. "Jimmy is so unselfish, too. You can drop it into him, he can play pick-and-roll, and you know, ‘OK, we’re going to have a good possession, and we’re going to have a chance.' I think that's a very similar aspect to both Bron and Jimmy — how they are able to manipulate the game and settle a team."
The Heat might not make more than 50% of their 31 3-point attempts again, and the Celtics will take more than 29 and make more than 10 on most nights, but Butler will steal your math problems and shove them down your throat. He scratches and claws for every edge, and Miami will follow him over the cliff if need be.
"No matter where we play or who we play, in a 48-minute game, if we just stick around, we’ve got a chance," Haslem told Yahoo Sports. "We’ve got a hell of a closer, so we know if we’re within striking distance, we’ve got a guy who can get us a bucket, and if he doesn’t, he’s going to make the right play.”
"You can’t quantify it," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "There’s no analytic to it. Just the feeling of stability in the locker room. Even when you’re down 9 in the first half, and we played poorly ... there’s just a settling effect that is impossible to quantify. Like, all right, we’re within striking distance; let’s just settle into our game, and Jimmy will make a bunch of plays, Bam will make a bunch of plays, and we’ll be all right."
Miami's staff was less than four minutes from prepping for the draft lottery, trailing the Chicago Bulls in a second play-in tournament game. A month later, they own home-court advantage in the conference finals. If nobody else would, Butler believed, and his Heat lined up behind him, ever-ready for the next assignment.
"Damn right I did," said Butler. "Damn right we did. And the best part about it is, we still don’t care about what none of y’all think. Honestly speaking, we don’t care if you pick us to win. We never have, never will. We know the group of guys we have in this locker room. We know that Coach Spo puts so much confidence and belief in each and every one of us. Coach Pat [Riley] as well. Our circle is small, but this circle has so much love for one another. We pump constant confidence into everybody, and we go out there and we hoop. We play basketball the right way, knowing that we’ve always got a chance."
The confidence of these Heat is such that when a reporter asked how they have won three straight road games to open their series in Milwaukee, New York and Boston, Adebayo and Lowry scoffed in disgust.
"We find ways to win," Adebayo reluctantly said, as if all of this was supposed to happen.
Boston better show up for work in the rest of this series and stay until the end, because Butler will be there. He will finish the job if you don't do yours with the precision necessary at the highest level, and he'll happily crack your hometown beer on his way to the next gig, whether the flight leaves for Denver or Los Angeles.