Ahead of the Miami Heat’s first round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, Jimmy Butler told reporters “I think I’m stupidly locked in.”
There was no reason to doubt him.
The Heat had ended the season on something of a tear, winning five of their last six. The first four came with Butler averaging 21 points, six rebounds and six assists, while shooting 55 per cent from the floor and 67 per cent from three (albeit on just over two attempts per game).
Those victories came against the Timberwolves, Sixers and twice on the road in Boston, crucial wins that saw the Heat bounce the Celtics into the Play-In Tournament and secure the sixth seed for themselves.
He didn’t dress for the remaining two simply because he didn’t need to. By then Miami were locked into their playoff spot and knew they would be facing the opponent they knocked out of last year’s Conference Semifinals in just five games – Milwaukee.
At which point, cue the most staggeringly vascular image you’ve ever seen.
The Main Thing is still the Main Thing
48 hours away from the pursuit. #HEATCulture pic.twitter.com/69j9RFKwW0
While the Bucks remained slight favourites this time around despite the recent history between the two franchises, it was almost universally predicted that this would be a gruelling six or seven-game series. The Heat were rounding into form at just the right time and, well, Butler had veins popping out of his veins and the first known medical case of minus percent body fat.
Which is to say: nobody was writing off Miami.
Fast forward five days and they found themselves down 2-0 in the series after an agonising Khris Middleton overtime winner in Game 1 and a Bryn Forbes-led three-point eruption in Game 2.
Butler is averaging 13.5 points per game. And it’s not just him. Bam Adebayo is averaging 12.5. Combined, that’s 14 points down from their regular season averages.
Worst still is the fact Miami’s best player is shooting a ghastly 25 per cent from the floor. Compare that with Butler’s 23 points on 53 per cent shooting in the same series last year and it’s clear something has changed. That something is pretty obvious: Giannis Antetokounmpo is now hounding him whenever he touches the ball.
For whatever reason – you’d have to ask Mike Budenholzer – that wasn’t the case last time. Giannis claims he didn’t get the ‘opportunity’ to guard the Heat’s main offensive threat and free from the Greek Freak’s tentacled grasp, Butler dominated that series.
Now, all wrapped up in the clutches of the reigning Defensive Player of the Year (not to mention MVP), he is struggling to make shots full stop.
What then is the solution after the 34-point thrashing Miami took on Monday?
“We know what we have to do,” Butler said. “Sometimes we get a little lost in getting everyone else involved. I think at times, you’ve got to just go, myself especially.”
Translation: less hesitating, find open shooters and cutters quicker and be more aggressive in attacking that 7 foot monster in front of you. No easy task admittedly, but if there’s anyone that can drag themselves – and Miami – back into a series, it’s Jimmy Butler.
Adebayo agreed that “pep talks” are not necessary. “We’re grown men,” he said. “We know what we’ve got to do.”
In contrast, the Bucks have had no problems at the top of their depth chart as their two best players have played like stars. Giannis is averaging 28.5 points, 15.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 3.0 steals in this series, while two-time All-Star Middleton is scoring 22 per game as his sidekick.
During Miami’s 33-year history as an NBA franchise, the Heat have come back to win a series after trailing 2-0 just once. Turns out it was at a pretty crucial time – in the 2006 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks.
In fact last year the Heat trailed just once in any series, losing 4-2 to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.
Milwaukee has shown this series they can win a close game and a blowout. Not only have they gained a 2-0 series lead, they have also flipped the pressure — at least for now. But 17,000 fans are expected on Thursday, which would make it the Heat’s largest and likely most raucous crowd of the season.
For Jimmy Butler and company, the Heat is well and truly on.
Live NBA Playoffs 6: Milwaukee @ Miami 27.05 2430
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