The Miami Heat knocked off the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, 115-104, in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series on Monday, and there's a lot to unpack from Miami's defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo to the Heat's ability to get into the paint to the great Goran Dragic picking Milwaukee apart, all of which feels sustainable in a series that has six or seven tough games written all over it with a Miami upset feeling like a distinct possibility.
But that's analysis for another day. Right now, it's all about Jimmy Butler, who hung a playoff career-high 40 points on Milwaukee in what was probably the most complete game he's played in a Heat uniform.
Butler had a borderline All-NBA season for the Heat by playing his usual stellar defense while operating as a relatively conservative offensive hub, his focus consistently on getting everyone involved (career-high six assists per game) over prioritizing his own scoring. When he did look to get his, he did so almost entirely in the paint/short mid-range area and by getting to the free-throw line over nine times a game, another career-high.
Through this approach, Butler became almost immune to jump shots this season; per Cleaning the Glass, a career-low 13 percent of his shot attempts came from the long mid-range, while 12 percent of his shots were 3-pointers, only 24 percent of which he made, by far the worst percentage of his career if you exclude his rookie season in which he played under nine minutes per game.
On Monday, Butler flipped the jump-shooting script on his season, knocking down both his 3-point attempts and connecting on a 3-pointer in crunch-time, contested jumpers as part of an absolute superstar fourth-quarter performance on both ends of the floor.
In the post-Big 3 era, the Heat have been a greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts operation, a collection of hard-nosed gamers driving and kicking their way to enough collective shooting success to remain competitive despite lacking a go-to star that could create their own offense. But they couldn't go beyond competitive. They would always fight defensively and play together and make life hard on opponents, but in the end they weren't a threat to the elite teams because they didn't have an elite player.
Butler is that guy. His presence is the reason you have to take the Heat seriously in this series and perhaps beyond. For three quarters on Monday, Butler picked his spots as Miami got major contributions from all over, namely Goran Dragic, who was sensational finishing with 27 points. Milwaukee's top-rated defense is built protecting the paint, but Dragic got into gaps with ease and took advantage of Milwaukee's retreating bigs for short runners and push shots.
Bam Adebayo missed some early point-blank looks, but he was aggressive in taking the ball hard to the rim against soft coverage and he was a monster on defense and the glass. Jae Crowder, who started defending Giannis and did a fantastic job, hit three 3-pointers, as did rookie Tyler Herro, who was his usual fearless self. Duncan Robinson only hit one 3-pointer, but he was more effective than that would indicate simply by coming off picks with attention-demanding aggression and even making a few plays off the bounce as defenders closed too hard. The threat of his shot is a huge weapon for Miami even when he's not taking or making a lot of them. It won't get remembered, but Kelly Olynyk hit a huge 3-pointer to close the first half.
But the fourth quarter belonged to Butler, who reentered the game with just under nine minutes to play and the Heat up by two. From that point forward, Miami outscored Milwaukee by eleven points. That's what a star does for you. He takes a close game and puts it away. It's what Giannis was unable to do for the Bucks, which is a whole other topic but relevant in the sense that is very tough to consistently force your way to the rim when you can't rely on a jump shot in the closing stretches of games, especially when you can't make free throws on top of it.
Butler showed that while his jumper might have been missing all season, it wasn't gone for good, and he can still call upon it when he, and his team, need it most. Since entering the bubble, Butler is 6-for-9 from beyond the arc. That's still a small sample, but anyone who watched him this season will tell you even that feels like a significant development.
Butler still did his thing getting into the paint on Monday, and in keeping with the theme of his season, he trekked to the free throw line 13 times, hitting 12 of them. But sooner or later, you have to be able to hit a few jumpers. In the regular season, mid-rangers might be the devil, but in the playoffs, they win you games. Kawhi Leonard carried the Raptors to a championship by going back to the mid-range well time and again. Butler isn't going to shoot at that kind of level, but if he can keep this part of his game going in the late stretches of games, do not sleep on this Miami team.