Butler Drops 56 to Push the Bucks to the Brink

The Milwaukee Bucks have been playing a dangerous game in these playoffs. Giannis is dealing with a back contusion, and so the Bucks held him out of Games 2 and 3.

You keep hearing the announcers say stuff like, “Giannis would be playing if this were Game 7,” or “Giannis would be playing if this were the Finals.” As if the Bucks aren’t sweating the Heat and felt like they’d be able to win this series without Giannis.

Well, that seemed true after Game 2, which Milwaukee won at home. And if you looked at the Heat’s shooting numbers in Game 1, you’d be forgiven for concluding it was a fluke performance. Miami shot 15/25 from three in that game (60%) and 59.5% from the floor overall for a team True Shooting of 69.7%.

Miami cooled off a bit in Game 2, but still shot 44.4% from three and posted 64.8% True Shooting as a team in the 138-122 Bucks win.

But then the series went back to Miami and the Heat continued their hot shooting, going 16/33 from deep 53.6% from the field overall, 66.1% true shooting.

Suddenly the Bucks found themselves down 2-1 with another game in Miami.

The Bucks were in a fair bit of trouble at that point. Miami was still shooting “White Hot” and if they stayed hot in Game 4, the Bucks were at risk of falling down 3-1 in the series.

That’s exactly what happened. Miami last night was 40.6% from three (13/32) and 43/87 from the floor overall (49.7%). They again posted a team True Shooting of above 60% (60.7%) and caught fire in the 4th quarter, going 3/4 from deep in the 4th quarter and 13/18 from the floor overall.

But it wasn’t just the Heat staying hot that won them that game last night.

It was Jimmy Butler putting forth one of the all-time great playoff performances in NBA history.

That’s what happened.

Jimmy had 56 points, tied for the 4th most points ever scored in an NBA playoff game:

It wasn’t just an incredible game by Butler. It was an historic game–an legendary moment that will be in playoff highlight reels for years to come.

Yes, it was in the first round, but only 5 players in league history have ever scored that many points or more in a playoff game. It’s still a major accomplishment, no doubt.

Jimmy set the Miami Heat record for points in a playoff game, and he did it once he hit 50. This is a Heat franchise that has had LeBron and D-Wade, and neither of them hit 50 in a playoff game (the previous high was LeBron’s 49 against the Nets in 2014).

Now Miami is one win away from becoming the 5th 8-seed in NBA history to beat a 1-seed in the playoffs. The four previous occurrences:

  1. 1994: 8-seed Denver upsets 1-seed Seattle
  2. 1999: 8-seed Knicks upset 1-seed Heat
  3. 2007: 8-seed Warriors (“We Believe”) upset 67-win 1-seed Mavericks
  4. 2011: 8-seed Grizzlies upset 1-seed Spurs

With Giannis limited by his back injury, Jimmy Butler is the best player in the series. And he showed that last night.

The clutch shots that he was hitting to put that game on ice last night, it was something else. The Miami crowd–which usually catches a lot of flak for arriving late, but they actually go wild down there once they do show up and they were electric last night–the legendary Kevin Harlan on the call. It was just an incredible moment and I’m so glad I didn’t give up on that game when it seemed all hope was lost.

For pretty much the whole second half, Milwaukee had a comfortable 10-15 point lead. It just felt like the superior team was doing what superior teams do.

Eventually with about 6 minutes to play, Bucks are up 101-89 and it felt like they were well on their way to victory. But after that point, the Bucks went ice cold and Miami stormed back into the game. Bam hits a 16 footer to make it 101-91. Then Jimmy hits a pair of jumpers to make it 101-95, plus the and-one.

At this point, Miami is playing swarming defense, getting steals that lead to points, and by the 3:17 mark, after a Butler dunk, Miami pulls ahead 102-101.

Milwaukee finally starts hitting some shots at this point, and the teams go back and forth, eventually it’s tied at 107 with 1:42 to play.

Jimmy hits a long three, then a long two, and it’s 112-109 Miami with under a minute to play. After a huge steal off of Jrue Holiday by Kyle Lowry, Middleton fouls Jimmy and he hits both free throws to make it 114-109 Miami with 47 seconds left to play, and was basically it.

Miami finished the game on a 30-13 run over the final 6 minutes, and that’s how the Bucks fell down 3-1.

I’ll say that I didn’t expect Miami to win this series. I was not impressed with them in their game against the Hawks in the play-in, and they had to escape a nail-biter against the Bulls in the second play-in game. Miami didn’t seem to have a lot of momentum coming into the playoffs.

But they’ve got a ton of playoff experience, they have a great coach in Spo, and they have one of the all-time great playoff risers in NBA history.

Jimmy Butler is a B+ to A- tier player in the regular season.

In the playoffs, though, he takes his game to a whole different level. Playoff Jimmy is a real thing.

Last year, Jimmy averaged 21.4 points a game in the regular season and 27.4 points a game in the postseason as he led the Heat to the Conference Finals.

This year, in a 4-game sample size, he’s averaging 36.5 points a game in the playoffs vs. the 22.9 points per game he averaged in the regular season.

Through these four games, he’s got a 70.8% True Shooting average.

Again, with Giannis limited, he is unquestionably the best player on the floor in this series. And that’s a very dangerous situation for Milwaukee.

Game 4 situations in the playoffs are so crucial because in most cases, the series is 2-1, and Game 4 is the difference between a commanding 3-1 lead or a tied up 2-2 series.

Milwaukee was well on their way to tying the series up, but they imploded late and now they’re down 3-1.

Do I expect Miami to win this series? I think I do, actually, although it wouldn’t shock me if Milwaukee comes back and forces a Game 7. Milwaukee does have 2 of the next 3 games at home, which is big.

But Miami has the confidence now, and you can’t undersell that.

I also wonder if the way that game went down broke Milwaukee’s spirit–they might just be mentally beaten at this point.

I’m not going to count on that, but it’s certainly possible. Lots of teams give up after falling down 3-1.

But Milwaukee is an old, experienced, veteran team, and I wouldn’t count them out just yet.

One other thing I wanted to add is that two of the greatest playoff performances of the past few years–Butler last night, and KD in the 2021 second round with the 49 point Game 5 and the 48 point Game 7–have happened against Milwaukee.

This is a Bucks team that has, arguably, the three best defenders at their position in the league and arguably of this generation: Jrue Holiday (who was voted overwhelmingly by his peers as the best defender in the league) at point guard, Giannis at power forward, and Brook Lopez at center.

Giannis has won DPOTY before, Lopez led the league in blocked shots this year and was at one point the favorite to win DPOTY.

This is a Milwaukee team with some elite defenders.

And yet they are starting to develop a history of getting absolutely torched by great players in the playoffs. That’s interesting to me.

The Bucks’ defensive philosophy under Mike Budenholzer is to basically say, “We are not allowing you to get inside and score. If you’re going to score, you have to make your shots.”

Milwaukee builds a wall in the paint and forces you to hit outside shots. Their main priority is paint defense, not perimeter defense. They don’t believe teams can consistently hit enough outside shots over the course of a playoff series to beat them.

And they are not going to panic when an opposing player gets hot and has a big game shooting the ball from outside.

I remember when KD was going crazy on them in 2021, people were lambasting Budenholzer and asking why the hell he didn’t just have Giannis guard KD? Or, better yet, why not double KD and force someone else to beat you? It was only KD in that series for Brooklyn–Kyrie was out with an ankle injury and Harden was playing on one leg. So why not just double KD and force, like, Joe Harris or Bruce Brown to beat you?

That’s just not how Milwaukee operates defensively.

Last year, in the second round, up 3-2 on Boston without Khris Middleton, they gave up 46 to Jayson Tatum in Milwaukee and it forced a Game 7. Tatum was 17/32 from the floor and 7/15 from three. It was an efficient, legit 46 points–Tatum only attempted 7 free throws in the game.

I’m not saying Jimmy Butler only went for 56 because Milwaukee has a flawed defensive philosophy–Jimmy deserves tons of credit here.

But these types of things do have a history of happening against Milwaukee’s supposedly fearsome defense. They’re not going to really change their approach even when a player on the other team is going off.

In fairness to Milwaukee, their approach was pretty much working for most of the game. Jimmy started the game guns blazing: he had 22 points in the first quarter on 9/10 shooting, yet when the quarter ended, Milwaukee had a 33-28 lead.

Jimmy had 37 through three quarters yet Milwaukee was up 11 going into the 4th. The Bucks were comfortably ahead for most of the game until they just imploded in the final 5-6 minutes.

And we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Milwaukee’s offense just sputtered out in the 4th quarter: they shot 9/27 from the floor. Giannis and Jrue were a combined 2/10 in the quarter. The only guy who really had anything going for Milwaukee in the 4th was Brook Lopez, who was 5/9 shooting for 11 points (he actually finished with 36 points on 12/23 shooting).

Hats off to Jimmy Butler, man. Just an incredible performance any way you slice it.

Was it “the greatest Miami Heat playoff performance ever”? No.

Come on, now. The only reason people are saying that is to take the LeBron hater angle–always trying to minimize his accomplishments and discredit him.

This was a first round series. Yes, it was awesome, and yes, the Heat are on the verge of a historic upset.

But as a general rule, I cannot put any first round performance in the “greatest playoff performances ever” list. That list is reserved for the Finals and maybe Conference Finals, when the stakes are highest (or, also, for like a second round series between two teams that are favored to win it all–like when the Spurs and Lakers used to face off in the playoffs in the early 2000s and you knew that even though it was the second round, whoever won the series was winning the Title, because those were the two best teams in the league by far).

Why do we always have to COMPARE stuff, you know? Why can’t we just live in the moment and enjoy it, and then, after some time has passed, come back with a more clear mind and evaluate the historical context of what we witnessed? People are always trying to say stuff like, “This performance is BETTER THAN ____!” People are always trying to throw out these hot takes and get all caught up in the moment–just enjoy and appreciate the moment.

Okay, so are the Bucks toast? Is it over for them?

I don’t know if I’d say that just yet.

Milwaukee is the better team, and it wouldn’t shock me if they won three games in a row.

But they have zero margin for error now. They need to be 100% locked in and playing their very best basketball. They can’t just count on Miami having some negative shooting regression.

The Bucks are fortunate that they get two of the next three games at home, but the Heat only have to win one of the next three games.

I feel like the Bucks should win Game 5, but I don’t know. What if they’re just mentally beaten?

I doubt Jimmy goes nuclear again in back to back games–if it happens again, I would say it’s more likely to happen in Game 6 at Miami.

But you never know what Playoff Jimmy is capable of.

My gut is kind of telling me Miami finishes this thing off in six games.

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