With about eight minutes left in the second quarter, the Celtics are fighting back fast and furious. Jayson Tatum scores nine straight points, and after falling behind by 10, again, in the first quarter Boston is within one.
Jimmy Butler catches in the right corner. Grant Williams isn’t giving him this shot, as the Celtics have occasionally done. The HEAT have nothing else going. Standstill. Butler gives a half-speed jab step to the right and then makes up his mind. He loads up from three. Williams contests. Butler’s feet barely leave the ground. The lead becomes four.
Before the game, before an elimination Game 6 in a hostile environment, P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris were having a discussion with Butler. At one point, they put it out there.
“We need 50 tonight.”
Butler didn’t say a word in response. He looked his teammates and nodded his head.
Tucker could only read it one way.
“He's locked in.”
With about eight minutes left in the third quarter, Boston is pushing again. Down three. They had already taken a momentary lead early in the period after trailing by two at the break, answered by a ludicrous Max Strus three with one second on the shot clock. Now they’re back at the summit, about to grapple the final ledge.
Butler catches the ball on the right wing, drawing Robert Williams in a cross match. Williams stands on the arc, arms out wide. Once between the legs, and Butler makes his move. He doesn’t so much as beat Williams as he gets into him, creating just enough space to cross the plane from the right hemisphere of the rim to the left. The ball goes up awkwardly, but it travels just high enough to get up over the rim. Just barely. It sits there. One beat passes. Another. The lead goes back to five.
Dwyane Wade usually only reaches out in times of great need. The morning of Game 6 was one of those times. A phone call. A text message. Something Butler needed to hear.
“You can do this.”
Butler’s knee might be banged up, Wade relayed in his messages, but nobody cares. These are the nights when you build your legacy.
“It meant the world to me,” Butler said.
You can never know when a game like this is going to happen. You can think. You can guess. You can project. You can hope. You can’t know. Not for certain. But certain players make you think it’s possible. They make you believe.
Butler had earned that belief before. Had shown he could be the last man standing and emerge victorious, at least for a night. Two years ago he dropped 40 and 35-point triple doubles on LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers to stave off defeat in the NBA Finals despite the team being ravaged with injuries. Two of the greatest Finals performances anyone has ever seen. He showed everyone what it looked like to empty the tank.
He had been rolling in that postseason, playing as well as ever. You could easily argue he was topping that postseason run this time around, having dropped three 40-point games, averaging 30 along the way. Atlanta had no chance. Philadelphia challenged him to be a scorer more than a playmaker and he obliged. In Game 1 against Boston, he dropped 41 points on 19 shots. But even with Miami taking Game 3, the previous three games combined for one of the worst stretches of his career. 27 total points on 10-of-40 shooting. He was not, by any stretch, his usual self.
“I let my team down a couple of games,” Butler told ESPN during his walkoff interview.
With about 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Boston is back within four. Ime Udoka has stuck Horford on Butler, as he did down the stretch of Game 5, mimicking the choices of past coaches to put the likes of Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo on Butler to keep him away from the rim. Tucker screens Horford off of Butler, who drives on Grant Williams. Pullup. Contact. Foul. Boston is back down seven.
Udoka clearly trusts Horford. He’s right to, but you can tell how much a coach trusts a defender by how much help they offer them. Doc Rivers trusted Joel Embiid to keep Butler away from the rim while shutting down Miami’s shooters. Butler averaged 32 points in the games that Embiid played, shooting 55 percent. Boston is doing the same. A minute after the score over Grant Williams, it’s one-on-one. Ten paces on the main drag. No help coming. No shooters to find. Nowhere to hide.
Celtics Game 6: Jimmy Butler Attack Al Horford One-On-One
In the grand scheme of it all, maybe this is a win for Horford. If you force the shot Butler takes here, a fading jumper off a reverse pivot, over and over again, with a good contest, the percentages are probably going to work out in your favor.
Averages don’t matter in the fourth quarter of an elimination game. You get the shots you get. You make them, or you go on vacation.
Horford did everything right. Butler passes the test regardless. He passes nearly every test. His 29 field-goal attempts tie his career postseason high, and with Miami sending plenty of help, in the gaps, with blitzes or with straight up doubles at Boston’s two stars, those 29 shots are more than Tatum and Jaylen Brown take combined (26).
Butler wasn’t alone in this one, not hardly. The offensive burden was his to bear, but Kyle Lowry has his best scoring performance of the playoffs despite dealing with his own injury. A 5-of-14 in the box score isn’t going to make you look twice, but Miami doesn’t win without his four - one of them tying the game after Boston took a late three-point lead - or Strus’ three triples. Tucker and Bam Adebayo grab five offensive boards to complement their typically exceptional defense. Butler put his name on the game. His teammates gave him a hammer and a chisel.
With eight minutes left in the fourth, Boston is surging. The HEAT were just up nine. Now they’re up two after a pair of Brown free-throws. Butler catches in the left corner with Marcus Smart in front of him. Tucker moves to set a screen, to get Butler the White matchup on the switch. Butler doesn’t wait. Another three, and Miami is back up five.
It’s not always the best sign of healthy offense if Butler is shooting threes. Of the rotation players who take them – pretty much everyone who isn’t Adebayo – Butler’s percentages are typically the least inspiring. It is not what you would call Option No. 1, not by any stretch. Even after hitting a bunch of them earlier in the postseason, Butler was shooting 32 percent from deep coming into this game. But Butler has continuously shown that the percentages can be damned. Sometimes you aren’t going to get a great look, aren’t going to have a traditionally healthy offensive possession, no matter what you do. That’s the playoffs. Sometimes you just have to be willing.
It’s one of two corner threes Butler would make in the game, as many as the Celtics hit as a team. He scores 20 points on 14 isolations.
The easy and obvious and fair comparison is to James’ 45-point Game 6 in Boston back in 2012. Nearly identical situations, though the stakes were a little different for that HEAT team, having fallen to Dallas in the previous NBA Finals, under possibly the most scrutiny of any group in the history of professional sports. James stole Boston’s soul early in that one. He hushed the crowd in the opening minutes and neither they, nor the Celtics, could muster anything for him. Complete and utter domination.
The crowd on Friday night had hope. Again and again, the Celtics were right there. Either making it a one possession game or outright taking a lead. Again and again, Butler stood firm. Indomitable. The silencer.
“Jimmy brought his competitive will tonight, and it was a will that would not let us lose,” Erik Spoelstra said.
With six minutes left in the fourth, it’s a one-point game after a pair of Tatum free-throws. How many times is this the moment where the home team follows the script? They make their run, the building comes to life, they never look back. Instead, Butler comes off a screen, puts his head down, barrels through Tatum’s swiping arm and sheds Smart, arms up and not fouling, to free himself for a short jumper.
Butler’s 22 drives are a series high for any player, topping Tatum’s previous high of 17. He almost hits as many two pointers (8) in the second half as the entire Celtics team (9). He ties his season high with 20 points in the paint.
With two minutes left in the game, it’s tied. Brown had just missed a pair of free-throws. Butler has the ball on the right wing. Boston doesn’t want to switch White, a good defender but giving up some size, onto Butler. Or at least it doesn’t look like they want to. It looks like White is supposed to hedge out on Butler, stop the ball, and let Smart recover to the man. If that’s the case, the coverage is blown. White doesn’t stop anything. Smart doesn’t recover. Butler gets a full head of steam, charges the lane and goes right at Horford’s chest. And one.
This lead, Miami never loses.
In the entire postseason history of the league, only Russell Westbrook had ever posted numbers to match Butler’s 47 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and four steals - each of them distributing run-stopping silence on their own. Westbrook needed 43 shots to do it that night in 2017. In making over half his attempts, Butler put up a statistical line that had never happened before. Ever. Even including regular season games, only the likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Rick Barry and James Harden matched Butler’s line. Those performances didn’t happen with a season, with championship hopes, on the line.
“The game speaks for itself,” Adebayo says.
The dagger comes in the final minute. Boston clings to hope down four. Miami has to take the ball out of bounds in the corner, directly in front of Boston’s bench. There’s 2.2 on the shot clock.
Butler posts up Smart 20 feet out. Fakes right. Spins left. White comes over to help and contest. Mike Breen lets out an ‘It’s good’. Scanning the seats, you can see multiple heads fall into multiple sets of hands. Twenty thousand hearts break in unison, and that’s not even counting those at home.
It’s also an incredibly tough shot. With Boston posting its best Shot Quality – expected effective field goal percentage based on the shots taken and how well they were contested – of the series on one end, Miami’s number sits about where it’s been for the last four games, in a range that would have been one of the worst marks for the regular season. The HEAT score 21 points in the last three seconds of the shot clock, one off their own season high and the most late-clock points Boston has surrendered all season. It was notable when Philadelphia did the same to Miami, and it’s notable now. It’s a tough way to live, and would be tough to replicate in Game 7.
It also doesn’t matter now that Butler has given Miami the gift of life. There’s no guarantee that Game 7 will have to play out the same way, nor that the same will be required of Butler. It may be that Butler will have to step out into the midday sun, little hand and big hand both pointing right at twelve, and face down the same opponent. Or another hero could emerge. That’s for then.
For now, Butler gave Miami a chance to keep figuring it out. It wasn’t just a game to remember. You won’t have to remember. You will be reminded of it, on broadcasts and in articles, in tweets and in memes and in feeds. It will be recorded in every volume. A shared experience for everyone in the sport that will one day transition into legend.
No matter how the context changes in the coming days or weeks, Jimmy Butler’s 47 will never go away. Because, as Lowry so eloquently put it, ‘it was f****** incredible.’