FOX Sports NBA Writer
On the track he would have saved almost everything.
First, he hit Marcus Smart in the face with a pull-up 3 with less than two minutes left in the game. Then he (finally) brought the ball powerfully to the basket and completed it by touching And-1.
And then there were the three free throws he practiced with just three seconds left on the clock and his team two down.
Those last three points gave Jimmy Butler 15 in the fourth quarter and 24 in the evening. He added 11 rebounds and eight assists. It’s a great looking stat line. And if Boston Celtics guard Derrick White hadn’t delivered a miraculous, barely overwhelming throwback that gave the Celtics a 104-103 Game 6 win in Miami on Saturday, those free throws would have sent the Heat into the NBA Finals.
Instead, Miami is one loss away from becoming the first team in NBA history to lose a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven series.
But the end-of-game outburst doesn’t make up for Butler’s performance in the first 45 minutes of the game. Because in those minutes Butler was terrible.
After the game, he turned to his teammates in the dressing room.
“I told them,” he said during his post-game press conference, “‘If I play better, we won’t even be in that position.'”
Butler is right, but the question now is whether he can fix things for Game 7. Because it wasn’t just because he missed 16 of his 21 field goal attempts in Game 6. Even the best of the best endure tough shooting nights. It was his demeanor and the way his cold shot (he started the game 7-1) seemed to throw him off course.
He stopped attacking the basket even when he isolated weaker defenders in space. He seemed to pump incorrectly each time he neared the edge, instead of climbing vigorously to the top. There were times when he caught the ball in mid-floor and didn’t even turn to face the basket.
Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra also seemed to lose some confidence in his star.
Not only were the Heat driving Duncan Robinson’s offense down the stretch, but before their final possession, TNT broadcaster Stan Van Gundy said he could hear Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra shouting at Butler, “You want it?”
It’s hard to imagine asking Butler a question like that at the start of this postseason.
What should really worry the Heat is that Butler’s Game 6 performance was a continuation of a trend, not a fluke. In Game 3 he was only 5 out of 13. In Game 4 he had only 16 points and in Game 5 only 14. He has only hit 37% of his shots in the last four games.
To be fair, Butler doesn’t look his best, and he doesn’t seem to have confidence in his ability to get off the floor. The Celtics also deserve credit. They made a point of penetrating Butler’s chest, staying on his pump fakes, and sliding over from the weak side to help him. The length of Robert Williams III has bothered Butler on numerous trips. But let’s not forget how dominant “Playoff Jimmy” has been over the past month. It was a player who had played at a level in the first two and a half rounds of the playoffs that no scheme could contain. And yet, in the last four games, that relentless, soul-sucking, weakness-hunting vampire is gone, knocking out the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and making Giannis Antetokounmpo ponder the meaning of failure.
“Jimmy leads with everything — his spirit, his soul, his competitive nature,” Spoelstra told reporters before the game.
For this very reason, it’s fair to blame him for the Game 6 loss. There was no sign of this competitive character until the end.
That doesn’t mean Miami is cooked. Those Celtics have already proven vulnerable, particularly at home where they are 5-5 so far this postseason.
But it’s only when “Playoff Jimmy” shows up that the Heat can avoid a fake story.
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Boldest Trial in Professional Sports History.”.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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