Jimmy Butler can do it all. He can take defenders off the dribble, fire away from range, play without the ball, set up others, crash the glass and harass the passing lanes. And he has the Miami Heat playing with house money as it’s up 2-0 over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals with the next two games in Miami.
This improbable run Butler is taking the Heat on is reminiscent of the ride LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers on during the 2018 Playoffs. Yes, one of the all-time impressive displays of preeminence the NBA Playoffs has ever seen, where James carried that Cavs team to the NBA Finals. That season, the Wine and Gold finished as the fourth seed and won 50 games. This Heat team barely scratched 44 dubs and earned the eighth seed through the Play-In Tournament.
Butler’s current run for the Heat is a lot like LeBron’s was for the Cavs in 2018.
The journeys are different, but James and Butler’s dominion over the competition is on the same level. What’s also alike is that both teams were/are underdogs. King James could dissect any scheme in front of him then. JB has vanquished double teams, zones and bigger defenders during his quest for gold.
James turned 33 that season, the same as JB now, but this must be the age of a peak combination between physical abilities and understanding of the game. When Butler wants to, he can take over and drop the curtains for his opponents, as James could when challenged.
An example: The Heat was down nine points with over six minutes left in Game 2 Friday. Boston’s Grant Williams incautiously thought it was a good idea to taunt the Beast of the East. Next, Butler sized up Williams on the left wing and darted toward the paint for a turnaround jumper. Butler converted three more field goals before the buzzer echoed.
While James was on his last tour of duty with the Cavaliers, in Game 7 of the ECF in Boston, rookie Jayson Tatum provoked the Akron Hammer by yelling in his direction and bumping him post-dunk. Subsequently, James was involved in the next 10 of 16 points scored by the visitors to win Game 7.
What’s most similar about James in his prime and today’s Butler is how they could/can trounce defenders with their first step. Both resemble a swinging ball and chain when deciding to lower their head and attack the cylinder.
In 2018, James was such a force attacking the cup that he was fouled on 15.3% of his attempts, putting him in the 94th percentile of his position, per Cleaning The Glass (subscription required). This year, Butler is fouled on 17.9% of his shots, good enough for the 100th percentile of his position, per Cleaning the Glass (again, subscription required).
Butler dropped 56 points, tied for the fourth-most ever in the NBA Playoffs, in Game 4 of round one to give the Heat a 3-1 lead over the Milwaukee Bucks. Five years ago, James also dropped a 50+ piece, but that was in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors.
Through the Cavaliers’ first 12 games of the 2018 postseason, James averaged 32.7 points a night, with nine assists and nine rebounds. Presently, Butler has recorded 12 games in the 2023 Playoffs for the Heat, averaging 31.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.2 steals per game. Miami’s record in those matches is 10-2.
When the Cavaliers met up with the Toronto Raptors, the first seed that won 59 matches, in round two, the sportsbooks dismissed LeBron’s team. The lines didn’t shift until the series moved to Cleveland, with the Cavs up 2-0.
Following Game 2 Friday, the wiseguys still undervalue the Heat as it prepares to host Games 3 and 4 at the Kaseya Center. DraftKings has Boston as a -3 favorite on the spread, and FanDuel has the Celtics as -3.5 favorites on the spread too.
I surmise it will take a dismantling of the Green for the bookmakers to give Miami credit. Maybe Butler has to bombard his rivals with long jumpers as James did to the Raptors in Game 2 of the ‘18 East Semis to prove he’s that guy.
Or perhaps a trip to the NBA Finals will elevate Butler’s street cred- recognizing him as a certified top 10 player.