After their lead had flipped into a deficit, the Celtics were badly in need of a momentum shift. But Jimmy Butler was looming.
Aiming to keep Miami’s lead from reaching double digits, Jayson Tatum passed the ball to his right. Butler, who has second-best NBA Finals MVP odds of +350, read it, jumped it and bolted.
His fast-break score was one of many that changed the tide of the game — and the series for that matter. And it was one of many ways Butler influenced the Eastern Conference Finals opener.
Boston Celtics-Miami Heat Eastern Conference Finals Series
The No. 2-seeded Celtics play at top-seeded Miami in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals at 8:30 p.m. ET on Thursday. The Heat, who have NBA Finals odds of +260, have an NBA betting line of -3.5.
The Heat lead the series 1-0 following a 118-107 victory on Tuesday, but it didn’t always seem like a certainty. The Celtics led by as many as 13 points and were in control for most of the first half.
Everything changed at halftime. Butler tallied 27 of his game-high 41 points in the second half. He added nine rebounds, five assists, four steals and three blocks. No one had ever recorded those numbers in the playoffs.
“Jimmy just really inspired everybody in that third quarter,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You’re seeing great two-way basketball.”
Jimmy Butler went off for 41 points on 63% from the field, while serving up a lockdown performance on the defensive end with 4 steals and 3 blocks! #HEATCulture@JimmyButler: 41 PTS, 9 REB, 5 AST, 4 STL, 3 BLK
💎 Game 2: Thursday, 8:30pm/et on ESPN 💎 pic.twitter.com/NRyZEmctuL
— NBA (@NBA) May 18, 2022
Jimmy Butler Rising to the Occasion
As the Celtics thrived in the first half, Miami was in danger of losing home-court advantage. But the early lead proved to not matter, at least against Butler and the Heat.
While Tatum ended up with 29 points, he coughed up six of his seven turnovers in the third quarter. The Celtics shot 2 of 15 in that frame, as the Heat outpaced them 39-14.
And Butler outscored Boston on his own with 17 points in the third.
“He’s a pro. He really is,” Heat forward PJ Tucker said. “He takes care of his body, comes and works on his game every day. He does everything he needs to do to be able to prepare to be a great player. I see it every day. You see him come out and have games like he’s having, it makes sense.”
Boston head coach Ime Udoka pointed out how poorly his team contested Butler’s shots. While scoring 41 points, Butler didn’t make any 3s. He was 12 for 19 from the field and 17 of 18 from the free-throw line.
Tucker noted Butler’s aggression has a cascading effect on the rest of the Heat. His assertiveness on offense may create chances for others, it may alleviate pressure on anyone else to score or it may divert defensive attention away from them.
Butler embraced the physicality that would naturally ensue in a clash between two franchises that pride themselves on defense. As he drove to the lane, chased steals and fought for rebounds, his mindset clearly set the tone for others around him.
“I like physicality,” Butler said. “I want to run into people and see who falls down first, who’s going to quit first. I think that’s the style of basketball I like to play, and so do they.”
Jimmy Butler joins LeBron James as the only players with 40+ points, 5+ rebounds, 5+ assists, 4+ steals and 3+ blocks in a playoff game. #NBA75
Jimmy Butler: 41 PTS, 9 REB, 5 AST, 4 STL, 3 BLK pic.twitter.com/LLX79fckWc
— NBA History (@NBAHistory) May 18, 2022
Jimmy Butler’s Importance Moving Forward
Butler’s impact has been evident since the postseason began.
Butler had a +25 plus/minus Tuesday and leads all players for the playoffs at +143. He’s also second in player impact estimate and net rating.
Butler’s confidence in himself and those around him is tangible. Whether he’ll continue at this pace, or if others will need to step up to keep winning, is the question.
Max Strus on Jimmy Butler leading the @MiamiHEAT. pic.twitter.com/34xvvzSGBh
— NBA (@NBA) May 11, 2022
The Celtics were without Marcus Smart, the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, and Al Horford in Game 1. Those two both would’ve been crucial in defending Butler on the perimeter and in the paint.
But, as the case has been throughout his professional career, Butler seems to embrace the challenge.
“Jimmy Butler is an elite competitor,” Spoelstra said. “There’s a lot of guys in this league that are playing basketball. He’s competing to win. That’s a totally different thing. He does that as well as anybody in this league.”
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