- ESPN.com NBA writer since 2010
- Covered Cleveland Cavs for seven years
- Author of two books
MIAMI — Jimmy Butler enjoys making others uncomfortable.
It’s a trait that has become his trademark, applying to everything from overcharging for coffee, blasting country music or barking at others on the basketball court, be they teammates or opponents.
Now, after four years with the Miami Heat, his team has taken after the 33-year-old veteran forward; the Heat’s ability to feel undisturbed amid turbulence has defined the No. 8 seed’s tremendous playoff run.
This has been an antacid season for Miami; basically all it does is play close games. For a dizzying 62 times through the 2022-23 regular season and playoffs, the Heat have been in games that reached “clutch” time, when the lead is within five points in the last five minutes or overtime. That is the third most for a team in the past 25 years.
And it has been a tumultuous playoffs, too. Even with dazzling end results — they’re now 10-3 after winning Game 2 to grasp a 2-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference finals over the Boston Celtics — it has been a rollicking ride, one that continues Sunday in Miami for Game 3 (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT).
“We have just had a lot of reps on learning how to deal with a lot of different emotions,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
“Every single game, it felt like for weeks on end, every game was ending on the last-second shot, whether we’re shooting it or the other team is shooting it. So you develop some grit from that.”
Grit is one word for what Butler brings, but it doesn’t quite capture the entirety of it. It’s more of an edgy calm. He typically plays with a fire in clutch times that never looks put out.
The Heat were down 11 points with 11 minutes remaining in Friday’s Game 2 in Boston. They were down nine with just over six minutes left. That was when Butler executed his three-point play, drawing a foul from Celtics forward Grant Williams and then getting face-to-face with him in a trash-talking duel.
“I love that gnarly version of Jimmy,” Spoelstra said after the game.
Gnarly, yet unbothered. Butler’s heartbeat didn’t seem to change, and neither did his team’s. After that bucket by Butler, Miami outscored Boston 24-9 to claim a 111-105 victory.
They’d done it again.
It’s who they are, it’s who Butler is.
“It makes me smile,” said Butler, who had nine of his 27 points in the fourth quarter in Game 2. “When people talk to me, I’m like, ‘OK, I know I’m a decent player, if you want to talk to me out of everybody that you can talk to.'”
Miami is now an incredible 6-2 in this postseason when it trails by at least 10 points (including 2-0 in this series).
The Heat have 38 clutch-time wins this season. They have 55 total wins, including the postseason. They basically win close, often coming from well behind, or they lose close. And they apply maximum pressure on opponents in doing so.
“Just being in those situations 50-plus times during the regular season, that just brings great experience for us,” said Bam Adebayo, who had a brilliant Game 2 with 22 points, 17 rebounds and five assists.
Meanwhile, the Celtics have twice blown 10-point, fourth-quarter leads in these playoffs, tied for the most in a postseason in the past 25 years.
The contrast in the two teams’ comfort levels in those uncomfortable moments, with Butler at the heart of it all, has been stark.
As the Heat put together a series of clutch plays from Butler, Adebayo and Caleb Martin, who had a career-playoff-high 25 points in Game 2, the Celtics have melted. Boston missed seven of its last eight shots and committed three brutal turnovers.
It was the Celtics’ fifth home defeat of these playoffs. It was the Heat’s fifth postseason road win.
It’s not a trend that would’ve been expected between these two teams, one that had an impressive regular season and one that felt like just being in endless close games was an indictment.
But one journey to get to this stage is paying off more than the other, thanks in large part to Miami’s star player — and his calming presence.
“This group has been together for a while, so there’s some collective experiences,” Spoelstra said. “But certainly this year was really unique for all of us. There’s a beauty in the struggle. There’s a beauty in that grind, and we’re privileged to be able to go through a unique regular season like we have.”
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