Where was the dominant Jimmy Butler against Denver?

When Jimmy Butler wrapped his right ankle on New York Knicks winger Josh Hart late in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, cameras caught Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra mumbling “F***”. His reaction echoed the sentiments of so many: the eighth seeds didn’t stand a chance without their best player.

Indeed, the Knicks tied the series in Butler’s absence, before he returned on five days off for Game 3. He has averaged 40 minutes in 13 games since, ousting New York in six games, earning MVP honors in a seven-game Conference Finals win. over the Boston Celtics and helping the Heat go home to a 1-1 tie with the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Finals. It’s hard to say that Butler’s injury hampered his team’s success.

That doesn’t mean it won’t be a factor in what is now a best-of-five battle for the championship.

Ahead of this series, Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill asked Butler last week at the annual Finals media day, “How’s your ankle? Are you close to 100 percent? Is that a look that tells me you’re going to lie now?”

“No, I’m not going to lie. I’m going to say nobody cares. Neither do you,” Butler joked to Goodwill during the session. “I’m always expected to do my job to a high standard if I speak up, which I will. It’ll be fine. We’re going to get the job done, ankle or not, and I’m not taking any followed, so don’t do that.”

There are many ways to interpret this, but “broken ankle, and I’m not taking a follow-up” sounds like a player known for his tenacity conceding no excuses, even though he has played 10 of his 13 games since the start. sprain on a rest day. As Spoelstra said immediately after the injury, “You just don’t know with ankle sprains.”

Statistical evidence supports the idea that Butler is not at full strength. In a five-game first-round win over the Milwaukee Bucks before spraining his ankle, he averaged 37.6 points on 59.7% shooting from the field and 9.6 free throw attempts, making more than half of his shots on each outing. In 11 games over one or two days off since the injury, he’s averaging 22 points on 40.6% shooting and 7.3 free throw attempts. His production jumped to 31.5 points on 45.6 percent shooting and 10.5 free throw attempts in two games on four or five days off since the sprain. He’s shot 50% once since Game 1 against the Knicks — a 5-for-10 effort in a Game 5 loss to the Celtics, his lowest field goal total in the playoffs.

Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler grimaces after making contact against the Denver Nuggets in the second quarter in Game 2 of the NBA Finals at the Ball Arena in Denver on Sunday.  (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler grimaces after making contact against the Denver Nuggets in the second quarter in Game 2 of the NBA Finals at the Ball Arena in Denver on Sunday. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Call his start against the Bucks unsustainable. Blame his performance on the injury or fatigue of a 33-year-old who gives every ounce of himself with every possession, but there’s no denying something is wrong. More specifically, this: He made 72.7% of his 12.8 attempts per game from inside the paint before the sprain and has shot 44.2% on 10.6 attempts in the paint since. The eye test confirms this too, as he has been reluctant to test taller defenders at the edge in recent weeks, often fainting from his patented fake pump.

Butler tapped into the reserves of his iron will when Miami needed him most. He scored 17 of his 28 points in the second half of Game 7 against Boston, and in three quarters that toppled a winning trio from behind – a 46-point third quarter in Game 1 of the Conference Finals, a 36-point in the fourth quarter the following game and another 36-point fourth quarter in Game 1 of the Finals – Butler averaged 9.7 points on 10-of-18 shooting (55.6 FG%), better numbers than any fourth quarter player during the regular season.

Spoelstra vacillated between suggesting Butler carries the same burden as before the injury and implying that the Miami players took on greater responsibility during his media availability on Wednesday.

“He does it on both sides of the pitch,” Spoelstra told reporters. “He’s got incredibly tough coverage defensively, that’s important. Offensively, I still think we have a great place where everyone feels good. If your role players can step in and start playing well, that’s usually because they feel a level of trust from the top players, and that’s Jimmy and Bam [Adebayo]. They push all of our guys to be aggressive.

“The path [the Nuggets] defend, they prioritize protecting the paintwork against [Butler], so he has to do the right readings. At the end of the day, these are his best moments. That’s key for us in close games. No matter how many points he had in the last six minutes, his fingerprints were all over the game.”

Yet Butler clearly twisted his right ankle in the third quarter of Game 7 against the Celtics, and he’s 13 for 33 from the field (39.4%) and attempted five free throws in two games of the Finals. He’s become more of an enabler, averaging almost twice as many assists as in the Milwaukee series.

“Keep playing basketball as far as you can,” Butler said after rocking a 4-for-14 start to score eight points on five shots in the fourth quarter of the Heat’s fourth-quarter rally against the Nuggets in Game 2 on Sunday. of the Finals. “Making plays for others. Scoring every chance I get. And through everything else, just finding a way to win. I think we did that tonight as a group , and we will continue to do so as a group.”

It’s remarkable that the Heat — holders of a negative point differential during the regular season — are in this position, given Butler’s waning brilliance. They are +0.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor since the injury and +9.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench. Through two games in the Finals, Miami is +6 on 33 possessions without Butler and -14 on 145 possessions with him. It seems impossible that the Heat can take that margin to a championship, but everything that this No. 8 seed has done seems unachievable.

Maybe Miami can keep catching fire from 3-point range and rely on sudden bursts from Butler to take them to three more wins and a ring. Maybe the two days off between all games, but 3 and 4 in this series will help him gain strength. Maybe the Heat are running out of gas against yet another more talented team on paper. If Miami has any additional equipment to find in these Finals, it could affect Butler’s ankle health.

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