In the 2020 NBA playoffs, Jimmy Butler was sublime, his performance in pushing the Miami Heat to the NBA Finals encapsulated by the every-last-breath photo of his leaning over a courtside barrier during Game 5 of the championship series against the Los Angeles Lakers.
In the 2021 playoffs, Butler, after his second season with the Heat, found his tank empty, shooting just .297 from the field with his team swept 4-0 in the first round by the Milwaukee Bucks.
That, Butler insisted, was an outlier, a product of two years of nearly non-stop basketball created by the pandemic.
The 2022 playoffs appear to be confirming as much.
Averaging 28.7 points on .525 shooting in this postseason roll to the Eastern Conference finals, including 27.5 points per game in the 4-2 second-round ouster of the Philadelphia 76ers, Butler is creating appreciation on both sides of the aisle.
“I didn’t know how good Jimmy was until I got here,” said power forward P.J. Tucker, who signed with the Heat in the offseason after winning last season’s championship with the Bucks. “I thought he was a good player — like all right . . . he has shown me more than I would have ever thought.
“His heart, he is never scared in the moment and that, itself, is a talent, because you have played with guys who are really good, but in the big moments they shy away and they don’t want it. But he wants every part of every moment.”
And so on to the next round it is for Butler, Tucker and the rest of the Heat, with the Eastern Conference finals beginning Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. at FTX Arena.
All as 76ers center Joel Embiid wondered what might have been had a roster/salary-cap squeeze not led to Butler’s exit from the 76ers in the 2019 offseason.
“Obviously, that’s my guy,” Embiid said shortly after Philadelphia’s season came to an abrupt close. “That’s my brother. Oh, man, it’s tough. But I’m so proud of him. He’s playing at an unreal level right now. He’s something else right now. I’m proud of him being at this level and carrying them and what he’s been able to do.
“They’ve had ups and downs the whole season. Missing guys, not being healthy, and they still found a way to be the number one team in the East and to be able to come in and do what they did, they deserve a lot of credit.”
At the time of Butler’s Philadelphia departure, the 76ers not only prioritized Ben Simmons as a core element, but also were committed to a $180 million contract to forward Tobias Harris during that offseason.
Simmons this season was dealt at the February NBA trading deadline to the Brooklyn Nets for James Harden, who fizzled in the playoffs, disappearing in Thursday night’s Game 6 at Wells Fargo Center. As for Harris, Butler strode into the victorious locker room Thursday night mocking the 76ers’ decision to roll with Harris as a cornerstone.
The not-so-mock indignation made it clear this is a motivated Jimmy Butler, his five 30-point games this postseason already a career best during a playoff run.
“I love being here in Miami,” Butler said as Thursday turned to Friday. “I love the group of guys that we have, and I’m not changing anything that happened. I’m here for a reason, and we’re going to ride this wave and take it back to the 305, get ready for the next round, and work our way towards this championship.
“Now I’m where I belong, I guess where I should have been a long time ago, a place where I’m welcome.”
“I think he is one of the ultimate competitors in this profession, so I think a lot of things get lost in translation and I think as this league gets younger, I think that it ends up being about some things that are not about winning,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He competes on both ends. He is an extremely efficient offensive player and when his only focus is just about driving a team to win, all the other things are irrelevant.
“He was brilliant all series long. He understands that it was just this series and the challenges only get tougher from here.”