Jimmy Butler was the best player on the floor opposite reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Miami Heat took Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinals set with the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks.
Butler was so good that Joel Embiid appeared to wish they were still teammates on the Philadelphia 76ers.
IF......— Joel “Do a 180” Embiid??? (@JoelEmbiid) September 1, 2020
Butler scored a playoff career-high 40 points in the 115-104 victory, including 13 of the Heat’s last 16 points to create separation in an otherwise tightly played series opener. He also helped in the defensive effort to slow Antetokounmpo, who was held to 18 points on just 12 shots, by far his lowest output of the playoffs.
“I told my teammates I probably wasn’t going to pass the ball,” Butler told reporters after the game, according to ESPN’s Marc J. Spears. “I made a couple shots. And they said, ‘That’s fine with me.’”
Butler shot 32 percent from mid-range and 24 percent from 3-point range during the regular season. On Monday, he made six of his nine jump shots and both of his 3-point attempts. His first triple tied the game, 73-73, midway through the third quarter. It came during Butler’s run of 12 straight points that gave Miami its first lead since Milwaukee seized control with a 40-point opening frame. His second three gave the Heat a 104-98 lead with three minutes left in the fourth. The Bucks never got within a possession again.
“He wants these kinds of moments,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told the media after Game 1.
The Heat sent waves of defenders at Antetokounmpo, including Butler, Bam Adebayo, Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder, and the Bucks star could never gain traction. He finished an assist shy of a triple-double, but his six turnovers and eight missed free throws proved momentum killers. The Heat previously held Antetokounmpo to just 13 points on 18 shots during a meeting in March, easily his worst performance in a loss this season. That has to be of concern for a Bucks team that entered the playoffs as title favorites.
Miami got 27 points, six rebounds and five assists from point guard Goran Dragic, who took advantage of Milwaukee counterpart Eric Bledsoe’s hamstring injury absence. Adebayo added 12 points, 17 rebounds and six assists, anchoring a Heat effort to outscore the Bucks 42-24 in the paint. Rookie Tyler Herro scored 11 points off the bench, including a 3-pointer that pushed Miami’s lead to 109-101 with 1:34 remaining.
Khris Middleton led Milwaukee with 28 points, and Brook Lopez added 24 — scoring lines that should translate into a victory. But Antetokounmpo scored just nine points on 3-for-8 shooting after a Lopez 3-pointer at the first-quarter buzzer gave the Bucks a 40-29 lead. The Heat went scoreless for the first four minutes of the fourth quarter, and still the Bucks could not turn the score in their favor, as Antetokounmpo often settled for jump shots and failed to control the ball when trying to attack Miami’s swarming defense.
If Antetokounmpo does not reestablish himself as the most dominant player in the league, Milwaukee will be in for a long series. The Heat proved deeper than the Bledsoe-less Bucks, and Butler was a force.
The Heat acquired Butler from the Sixers in a sign-and-trade deal last summer, and Embiid lamented the loss prior to this season. He appeared to do so again on Monday, a week after his Sixers were swept by the Boston Celtics. Butler has criticized his Philadelphia teammates’ work ethic, and his own relentlessness helped transform a sub-.500 Heat team into one that has the NBA’s title favorites on their heels in Round 2.
“It’s a star league,” Spoelstra added on Monday, “and that’s why we sought him out so aggressively.”
Embiid may be wondering what might have been, but Butler has Miami imagining what could be.
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