Turns out, it wasn’t the Sixers who were built for the playoffs. It was Jimmy Butler.
Hopefully, that hurts Josh Harris and Elton Brand as much as it does all of the Sixers fans who have spent the last two weeks watching a train wreck of a season become a nuclear meltdown. The decision to part ways with Butler last summer may not have been a simple one, but we’ve seen more than enough to conclude that it was, most definitely, the wrong one.
Granted, as of Sunday evening, there was still a chance that such an opinion would age poorly. The Heat had a golden opportunity to finish off a sweep of the East’s No. 1 seed, and they could not capitalize. They had the lead. They had the reigning MVP in the locker room with a sprained ankle. And they walked away with a 118-115 overtime loss.
“We did what we always said we can’t do,” Butler said afterward, “which is get comfortable.”
Yet the score is the score. Though the Heat missed a chance to close out the series, they will enter Game 5 needing one win in three tries to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. They are where they are because Butler is the kind of player who has that rare singular ability to take a team there. Even if the Heat somehow find a way to lose three straight games, the lesson of these NBA playoffs will endure. Not did the Sixers fail to construct a legitimate title contender, they did it by dismantling the one they already had.
Go back to the closing minutes of Game 4 on Sunday afternoon. Butler was quieter than he had been in his first three close-out periods against the Bucks, but he was still clearly the sort of difference-maker that often decides a best-of-seven series.
With 3 minutes, 16 seconds left and the Heat down four, he calmly dribbled off a ball screen and shed his defender in a manner that left him a 5-foot diameter of open space in the middle of the lane. The next time down the court, he turned down the screen, shaking his defender with a crossover, exploding toward the hoop, and then zipping a jump pass to a trailing Bam Adebayo for a game-tying bucket. With under 10 seconds left in regulation, Butler’s smothering defense on Khris Middleton forced Miami to call a timeout and reset itself for the potential go-ahead possession.
In a regular-season environment, none of these plays would have warranted any further attention than an update to the box score. Only in a postseason environment does the significance of Butler’s knack for navigating space and controlling the flow of a possession become clear. He might not be an elite shooter, or an elite ballhandler. He might not have elite size or elite explosion. But Butler is a winning basketball player. And the fact that such a player did not fit with the Sixers is an indictment of the organization as a whole.
That Butler ultimately landed with a winning organization probably isn’t a coincidence. During his time in Philly, he made that objective clear. In his six seasons in Chicago, the Bulls averaged 46 wins per season and won two playoff series. In the three seasons since his departure, they’ve averaged 23 wins, with no playoff appearances. During his brief stint in Minnesota, the Timberwolves were 40-28 in games he started and 11-15 in games in which he did not play. The Wolves went to the playoffs in their one full season with Butler. They won 19 games in their first full season after his departure.
In the Heat, Butler has finally found an organization that was ready for him. While the Sixers have spent the last three seasons chasing their tail, the Heat have spent it building a sustainable foundation that was capable of accommodating a final big piece. On Sunday, you saw a 20-year-old shooting guard named Tyler Herro hit a trio of precocious catch-and-shoot three-pointers to keep the Heat alive. You saw Adebayo working seamlessly with Butler on the low block and in the pick-and-roll. You saw a coach in Erik Spoelstra whose imprint is obvious. In short, you saw all of the things that the Sixers will continue to chase for the foreseeable future.
“I’m not surprised,” Butler said on Friday after the Heat outscored the Bucks, 40-13, in the fourth quarter to take a 3-0 series lead. “I think everybody else in the world might be, but not us here. Not if you wear a Heat jersey. If you’re one of these coaches. If you’re part of this organization, you’ve been seeing what we’ve been doing all year long.”
Throughout this series, there have been moments that feel as if they have been specifically crafted to sting the sensibilities of those who long for the Sixers to reach their potential. In Game 4, one such moment came early in overtime, when Butler and Adebayo engaged in a nifty two-man sequence that resulted in Miami’s first overtime points. First, Butler threw his defender off balance with a step back dribble. Then, he turned down a decent shot attempt to zip a pass to Adebayo in the post, putting himself into position for an even better attempt by cutting away from his scrambling defender and getting a pass from Adebayo. From there, all he needed was a hesitation dribble to get around the rim protection and throw down an easy two-handed dunk.