Falling behind big has been a theme for the Miami Heat during their Eastern Conference finals matchup against the Boston Celtics. In each of the first three games of the series, the Heat found themselves down by double figures in the second half. They fell behind by 14 points in Game 1, 15 in Game 2 and by as many as 20 in Game 3. They were able to overcome those deep deficits and pull out wins in Games 1 and 2, but were unable to do so in Game 3. Now, instead of having a commanding 3-0 lead heading into Game 4, the series feels much closer at 2-1.
After their 117-106 Game 3 loss on Saturday night, Heat All-Star forward Jimmy Butler expressed some frustration at how the Heat kept digging themselves into a hole on the scoreboard. As a veteran with ample postseason experience, Butler is well aware that constantly playing from behind isn't a formula for long-term success.
"I think it gets old, playing from behind consistently," Butler said. "Especially against a great team like Boston and what they bring to the table."
Butler was likely trying to send a message to his team with his comments, but he also needs to look in the mirror. While clutch plays from Butler on both ends of the floor were a big reason why the Heat were able to come back and win the first two games of the series, his passivity was also a sizeable part of the reason that they were down in the first place.
The line between a star player picking his spots and allowing others to get involved, or being overly passive is a thin one. Perhaps no player in the league today does a better job of skating along that line than Butler, who has a penchant for disappearing for stretches of game action only to pop up in the closing moments with a timely steal or buzzer-beating 3 to earn the headlines.
Up to this point in the season, Butler's approach of lying in wait has worked well. The fact that Miami has a plethora of other options on the offensive end has helped. However, moving forward the Heat will need Butler to be more aggressive over the course of contests if they want to make it back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2014.
Typically, teams tend to see their stars take on a larger load offensively during postseason play. Butler has done the opposite in the series against the Celtics. Through three games, Butler is averaging 12.7 field-goal attempts per game -- a number that is down from his season average of 13.1. In the first half specifically, shot attempts have been few and far between for Butler, as he has averaged just 5.7 first-half field-goal attempts over the first three games. Erik Spoelstra would probably like to see that number around 10. As one of the leaders on the team, if Butler comes out and sets the tone with his aggression, his teammates will follow suit, and perhaps the team can avoid falling behind by double figures.
Butler's lack of aggression against the Celtics is also apparent by his free throw attempts, or lack thereof. During the regular season, Butler averaged a career high 9.1 free throw attempts per game -- a number that increased to 9.5 during postseason play. A consistent ability to get to the line has become a central aspect of Butler's offensive arsenal. However, during the conference finals he's getting just six attempts per game. Spoelstra surely would like to see this number increase also, and that simply comes down to Butler being more aggressive and hunting his own shot more than he has.
Here's an example of a situation where Butler could look to be more aggressive, from the first quarter of Game 3. In the below play, Butler inbounds the ball from the baseline to Kelly Olynyk. Butler then enters the play and receives a nice return pass from Olynyk right under the rim. Instead of going up for a layup, or at least looking to draw contact, Butler kicks it back out to Olynyk, who then proceeds to miss a floater:
Butler managed to get completely behind the defense and had the ball under the basket. He has to go up with it in that situation. At the very least he would be able to draw a foul. You're not going to get many better looks at the rim than this against a defense as good as Boston's:
Another example came earlier in the same quarter, when Butler found himself wide open a few feet from the basket after a defensive miscue. And when I say wide open, I mean wide open:
Even with no defenders anywhere near him, Butler didn't make an attempt on the rim. Instead, he kicked the ball out to the perimeter, seemingly without even looking to score:
On this particular play, it worked out for Miami, and Butler ended up getting a hockey assist after Duncan Robinson knocked down a corner 3. Still, when Butler is all alone near the basket, he needs to look to score. He also needs to be more determined to get to the rack.
In the below play from the second quarter of Game 3, Gordon Hayward switched onto Butler at the top of the key, and after the switch Butler had a slight step on him. However, instead of putting his head down and getting to the rim -- an approach that likely would have resulted in a layup or two free throws -- he came to a jump stop and surveyed the floor for a brief second before trying to go up to the rim. That slight delay allowed Hayward enough time to recover and make a play:
If Butler had made up his mind from the moment the switch occurred that he was going to attack the rim, the possession would have turned out better for Miami. It's small mindset-based adjustments like this that the Heat need from Butler moving forward. He doesn't need to alter the way he plays.
Just like his shot attempts, Butler's assists per game are also way down in the conference finals -- the number has dropped from six in the regulars season to 3.7. With all the shooters on Miami, an uptick in aggression from Butler should also lead to an improvement in his assist numbers, as defenses will be forced to collapse on him if he consistently attacks the paint.
The Heat sit just two wins away from their sixth Finals appearance in franchise history. Those two wins won't be easy to come by, though, and they'll be exponentially harder to achieve if Miami continues to allow Boston to build big leads. As a leader, it's up to Butler to set the tone for his team by employing an aggressive mindset from the opening tip. If he does, Miami will have a much better chance of advancing. Butler has never played in an NBA Finals before, but he certainly had hopes of leading the Heat there when he signed on to be Miami's alpha dog last summer. Now it's on him to seize the moment.