Playoff Breakdown: Breaking down Butler’s Legendary Performance

Insightlast month10 min readJohn Jablonka

Giannis Antetokounmpo coming back for game four. No problem. The Miami Heat(Jimmy Butler) will still take care of business and take a 3-1 lead over the Milwaukee Bucks.

This was truly a historic performance and I absolutely hate that I didn’t watch it live. There are only three players that scored more points in a playoff game than Butler — Donovan Mitchell(57), Elgin Baylor(61), and Michael Jordan(63).

And when you consider the difficulty of the shots and who was the opponent, it’s even more impressive. Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, and Brook Lopez are all good defenders — three of them are arguably the best at what their role is, whether it’s being a help defender, a rim protector, or a man defender.

This was arguably the best performance by Butler so far in a Heat uniform. I say arguably because he already has some insane performances that certainly have a case given the context of the series — game three or game five of the 2020 finals, and game six in the conference finals last year.

So, let’s go through how he scored 22 points in the first quarter, 21 points in the fourth quarter, and a bunch of things that stood out to me throughout the game.

Butler Scoring At Will

For a guy that averaged just under 23 points per game in the regular season and never averaged more than 25 in a season — even in the playoffs until last year, he never reached 25 — he has been able to score at will.

Throughout the season, there have been cases where his usage has fluctuated and you could clearly see where he was passive or aggressive in looking for his shot. There’s been none of that in the playoffs and definitely not in the first quarter.

Early in the game, he was simply in rhythm. He was getting whatever shot he wanted and it went in. And went in again. And again. Until he missed his first shot after six straight makes.

A lot of those shots have been jumpers from outside of the paint, including two 3s:

These are the shots you would technically live with, especially when you’re the Bucks. The whole point of their defense is to protect the paint at all costs and they’ve done so. Except for Butler just said bet and made all of the shots.

What I liked in particular about some of those shots is them being early in the offense before the defense can get set. Butler shot 48.9 percent from within 3-10 feet and 50.0 percent within 10-16 feet. If he can get to his spot without the defense being there and in rhythm, that’s going in more often than not.

There were also these three plays:

In the first clip, Haywood Highsmith is looking to screen for Butler to force a switch on Joe Ingles. That’s the matchup you want for Butler over Middleton. They fight through the screens, so the switch isn’t there, but that doesn’t matter because Butler can go to work against Middleton.

In the second clip, a common action between him and Kevin Love. An empty side pick-and-pop — this was also the second time they used this in the quarter. The Bucks didn’t know what to do with this action. At first, Antetokounmpo is showing or maybe he’s looking to switch. Middleton does a good job fighting over it but then decides to switch when Antetokounmpo wasn’t in a good position. All of that confusion allows Butler to have a drive to the rim

Also note Brook Lopez guarding Gabe Vincent at the perimeter, which takes him away from the basket.

Now, that was a special first quarter, but who would have thought that we were going to get an even better fourth quarter? Butler checked in the game with 8:11 remaining down 11 points. From then on, he outscored the Bucks 21-16. He scored 21 points on 6-for-8 shooting, 1-for-2 from 3, and 8-for-9 from the line.

When he checked in, it started off with isolation against Middleton:

With around 15 seconds on the clock, the whole side is cleared to give him all the space that he needs. A couple of dribbles and he gets by him with ease to the paint.

Butler again going for a quick, in rhythm pull up from around the free throw line. At that point, he’s making everything. Things got interesting after that.

Butler wants to have Middleton on him instead of Holiday, so Duncan Robinson quickly sets and they willingly switch. That type of defense isn’t stopping Butler. He blew by him as easily as he could. And what’s strange is there’s zero help coming from the weakside — not even Lopez coming to rotate.

This next one wasn’t a bucket from Butler, but it’s still worth mentioning:

Now, that Middleton got cooked twice on the switch, the Bucks didn’t want to do that. So, Lowry continued to set a screen until the show comes. As soon as that happens, Butler is gone and is attacking as fast as he can. Note again with the whole side being cleared. Everyone is put it in that corner for maximum space.

On this possession, Lopez does come to help and Antetokounmpo sinks down to take Adebayo. That opens up a kick to Caleb Martin. Also, note what happens with Grayson Allen. He obviously wants to contest but he also doesn’t want to commit too much and give up a pass to Robinson.

The Heat continue to spam the same action over and over again. The entire side cleared with Lowry screening Butler. The point is to force the switch or attack when Middleton shows. Here, Holiday fights and goes under but that gives enough space for Butler to get to his spot, step back, and draw a foul.

Similar thing here:

Lowry screens, Middleton shows but that’s awful defense. I don’t even know what that was meant to accomplish. Holiday has no choice but to go under and try to beat Butler to the spot. But now, you’re giving Butler a wide-open pull-up 3.

And then you get this:

There’s nothing else you can do in situations like this. This was probably the best stretch I’ve witnessed since starting to watch basketball.

Things That Caught My Eye

The first thing that caught my eye is the Heat’s offensive rating before the fourth quarter. Before that heroic performance, the Heat scored 78 points and shot 20-for-41 from 2 and 10-for-28 from 3. They had a 100.0 offensive rating with a 52.5 percent true shooting.

The Heat struggled a lot on offense. Even in the first quarter, they didn’t do great numbers-wise. And if we just isolate the second and third quarters, that number drops to 96.2 with 47.5 percent true shooting.

The offense was bad and without Butler going off completely, they would’ve lost. This kind of makes me feel nervous going into today’s game

Their offense being poor either when Butler isn’t touching the ball or is off has been a thing all season long. And now when you consider that they’re without Tyler Herro, there’s little that they can do on offense outside of Butler being involved:

They were bad against bad teams in the regular season, now you’re asking a poor offensive team when it comes to creating offense to do so against an elite defensive team.

But take these two floaters from Lowry and Vincent:

They have been running a lot of double screens for Vincent and in the second clip, they had Lowry come off a pindown to curl into the paint. More of this, please.

For that to happen, Vincent needs to carry on with the aggression. That doesn’t just mean taking the shots, but actively looking to score:

Here’s a Vincent-Adebayo PnR. He attacks that space with purpose. Doesn’t hesitate and that threat pulls Lopez away. He doesn’t attempt a shot but it made life easier for Adebayo. Vincent is only taking just under four 2s per game. He should do what he did in the regular season.

Remember that Butler-Love PnP that got Butler an open drive?

They went to this action before and it again resulted in some defensive confusion with Antetokounmpo focused on Butler. That then opens up Love on the pop. That’s been a very good action for the Heat and this set up clearing out the side has produced some great results.

There were multiple possessions where Lopez got an easy look inside because of the same miscommunication with Adebayo and Butler/Martin. And it’s honestly a dumb error with not knowing whether to switch or not. You can’t afford to have four of these errors, especially down the stretch.

How are they defending Antetokounmpo? Because the man is hurt and he showed up, scored efficiently, got to the rim at will, and got a triple-double. Just take a look at how easy it was for him:

It will be interesting to see how they adjust to that. But on a more positive note, Highsmith did a good job defending him:

There are only so many options that Erik Spoelstra has to defend Antetokounmpo, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw more Highsmith for this matchup and just throwing everything at him.

Finally, the Heat have a chance to win this series in Milwaukee but it will be tough. The plan is still simple — take a lot of 3s, make a lot of 3s, get out early on offense, and have Butler take over. What the team is doing when it comes to shooting is unsustainable, but they don’t have to sustain it, they just have to do this one more game.