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 inspiring Butler to be night after playoff night.
The idea was Butler, like Wade, was a donkey of a 3-point shooter until the money was put on the playoff table. Then he was a killer. Butler, a 22-percent shooter on 3-pointers this season, made four-of-seven in Game 2. He carried the Heat.
There’s this idea from the coach of both that, if Butler isn’t Wade – and he’s not – that he can flash like him on magical nights like this. And he did in Game 2. You could in Spoelstra’s admiration the carrot of having Butler play like that more. The defense, playing all five positions, was equal to the points.
“When its about winning, they’ll find a way to kill you,’ he 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? Can we see both on games 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. 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 franchise spit him out. He can make them look split and vulnerable, as he did in a time-out dust-up with Spoelstra and veteran Udonis Haslem last month.
“That dark side,’ as veteran guard Kyle Lowry called it, “to push other people to be better.”
How many can get to that spot? Butler can. It’s why teammates in Chicago, in Minneapolis and Philadelphia had enough of him. It’s why Wade told him the best fit for his demeanor his was Miami. It’s why Butler said upon signing with the Heat, “When I heard about their culture, I knew I needed that in my life.”
Butler, odd as his ways can be, made the Heat become the Heat again. He took them out of the 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 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 giving the loser’s lament.
“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. Spoelstra dismissed a question about Butler being the stereotypical lead player, saying, “Everyone’s looking for the same conventional box of winning a championship. It can be done in a lot of different ways.”
All you know is there are three Heat players to have 45 points, five rebounds and five assists in a playoff game. Lebron. Dwayne. Jimmy. That’s magic, right there. There’s a long way to go these playoffs. But already you can see who will carry them.