MIAMI — Jimmy Butler continues to prove he’s one of the best players in the NBA, torching the Boston Celtics for 41 en route to a 118-107 victory over the Miami Heat at home. It’s his third 40-point game in this playoffs and the 6’7” swingman is the only player in the playoffs to average more than 25 points per game and more than 50% shooting (29.8 ppg / 53.5%).
While Butler did the lion’s share of the work on offense, the Heat were firing on all cylinders from top to bottom, especially in the second half. Miami’s defense was fierce as usual, and the team tied a playoff record with twelve blocks.
The Celtics, who were missing starters Marcus Smart (foot) and Al Horford (health and safety), took an eight-point halftime lead. Boston’s young star Jayson Tatum looked spectacular in the first half, scoring 21 points on 9-of-14 shooting and Boston was up 13 at one point, but Miami broke in the second half where Butler scored 27 of his 41. In the absence of Smart and Horford, backup guard Derrick White and secondary big man Grant Williams III couldn’t fill the gaps left by the missing veterans.
Tatum was scorching in the first half, scoring at will against a Miami defense that had just locked down shooting machine Trae Young and NBA leader Joel Embiid in the first two rounds. Off the Boston bench, guard Payton Pritchard had a few deep threes in both halves to finish with 18 points. With an early lead and the momentum, the shorthanded Celtics looked like they could steal Game 1 and could even ease the work of the series once back at full strength. But as always, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra adjusted and Jimmy Butler came out in the third quarter throwing hay.
From the start of the third quarter, it was clear that there was a change in momentum. The Miami defense looked like its typical self, skipping passes and smashing shots to the edge. Miami’s best of twelve blocks came from Bam Adebayo, when he followed Boston’s Jaylen Brown to the basket and just as Brown shot to the glass, Adebayo pinned him, pinning him in the corner ledge and forcing a jump ball.
Not quite on par with his signature dunk block from Tatum in the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals, but a huge moment in the game, nonetheless. Adebayo finished with four rejections and ten points. Three of the team’s 12 shots came from none other than Jimmy Butler, who also added four interceptions to increase his playoff average to 2.3 per game. The Heat had ten total interceptions, often taking advantage of sloppy ball handling and lazy passing from Tatum, who gave up seven turnovers to Miami pressure. Jaylen Brown finally came to life for Boston in the fourth quarter, scoring 15 of his 24 points, but it was too little too late for the Celtics.
Flooring general Kyle Lowry missed another game for the Miami Heat with a hamstring injury, but Miami depth showed in full force on Tuesday night. Along with his 17 points, backup point guard Gabe Vincent also had three blocks and continued to prove his worth in various defensive matchups. Tyler Herro dropped 18 points and eight rebounds off the bench, showing flashes of the rookie who snagged 37 points for Boston in one game in their 2020 ECF game.
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Boston, which dominated under the rim in the first half with 42 points in the paint, could only manage six points in the lane the entire second half. Surely Horford’s return to center will quench Boston’s thirst for strength down the middle. But when will it be? NBA health and safety protocols around COVID-19 are more complex than ever and Horford could miss up to two more games if things don’t go his way.
Boston’s Smart and Miami’s Lowry both remain questionable for Game 2. Defensive Player of the Year Smart is likely to feel the need to play after watching his team end up on the wrong end of a third quarter. -Time 22-2 led by Miami. . Lowry can sit out again if the Heat think their reserves can continue to produce at a high level.
Game 1 was a contest that Miami put its hallmark on. A third-quarter rally fueled by scrappy players, white-knuckle defense and fast, high-octane breaks is what “heat culture” is all about. At the center of this fast-paced hurricane, of course, was Jimmy Butler. Asked about this quarter, Butler didn’t mince words on his expectations for his team “I expect we can do this every quarter from now on.”
What makes Butler and the Heat so good is their ability to control the pace and play to themselves. Every game, both teams will run and both teams will cool off offensively. The Heat are built in such a way that their offense focuses on fast breaks, quick layups and wide open threes, making it easier to get out of shot drops as opposed to teams that rely on iso-ball to mark. Miami’s defense pressures the ball handlers to perform quick turnovers or threes, which leads to long rebounds and more opportunities for this athletic Heat team to get out and run.
A system like this requires tough, fast, selfless players, of which Miami has a full roster. In addition to mitigating offensive cold spells, Miami’s pace doubles opponents’ mistakes, often causing panic that can easily turn into a huge run as we saw in the third quarter of Game 1. The Coach of the Celtics, Ime Udoka, said: “We came out-hardened and out-physicaled. They looked like they wanted to increase their physique and their aggression and we looked like we didn’t want to match that… We lost our temper.
It’s getting harder and harder for people to argue that Jimmy Butler isn’t one of the top ten players in this league. He was the second best player in these playoffs (behind Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks) and put his team in a favorable position early in the series. In the battle between Tatum and Butler on Tuesday, one moment seemed to sum up the evening quite well. With just over four minutes left in the fourth, Tatum fired a three from the corner to send it back into the stands through a Jimmy Butler denial.
In Game 2, Boston will likely rely more on Jaylen Brown to fill point guard duties and take some of the pressure off Tatum. Miami will continue to push and try to adapt to any changes the Celtics bring. Game 2 will take place in Miami at the FTX Arena, where the Heat are still undefeated in the playoffs, and will end Thursday night at 8:30 p.m. EST on ESPN.