MILWAUKEE — Still clutching his blue Sharpie in his postgame interview, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra deferred when asked to detail the jaw-dropping, game-saving play, but bravely asked just before Jimmy Butler pulled off the unbelievable.
“I let the story tell because I had a different version of it,” Spoelstra said. “And he looked me dead in the eye…”
And Butler made himself clear.
“You can’t use those words on TV,” Heat guard Kyle Lowry said. “But it had two shells. And they f. It worked.”
It was a play the Heat practiced. Miami stunned Houston in a similar last-second move in February. But Wednesday night inside the Fiserv Forum, Spoelstra wanted to make a point.
“I was going to do a different version of it,” Spoelstra said, “and he (Butler) said, ‘No, let me be that guy.'”
Two nights after tying his record-tying, 56-point masterpiece in Game 4, Butler got the job done, and Miami sent home the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks with a 128-126 overtime victory in Game 5 of their playoff series.
A lot happened here in this stunning series-clincher. But no play summed up how Butler took the Bucks apart and dominated, or like Miami’s final game, how the Heat pushed them past the sixth No. 8 seed to win a first-round series in NBA history.
Gabe Vincent was the inbounder. There were only 2.1 seconds left. Miami trailed by two. Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, with his 6-foot-11 frame and his 7-foot-3 wingspan, blanketed the 6-foot-3 Vincent on the sidelines. Vincent stopped by the Bucks bench, took two steps back, and prayed into the air. Buttler was still swinging freely.
“I mean, Jrue Holiday is one of the best defenders on the planet,” Spoelstra said of the Bucs guard. “So if you’re going to throw something like that, it’s going to be accurate, and you’d better have a Megatron-type guy who can go in there, communicate a little bit, and then somehow find a way. It’s going to be in the basket.
“But that’s kind of JP.
Butler ran under the rim on a Max Struss cross-screen, curled back into the lane and slid past Vincent for a two-handed, over-the-head pass.
“I’ve got to throw the ball there,” Vincent said. “Giannis is on me. Who else is going to jump with Jimmy to get it? (Bam Adebayo)? He’s on our team. For me, it was easy. I had complete confidence in Jimmy.
“We ran something similar before and he sunk it. I thought I’d get it on Giannis. That was the hard part. Once I took a couple of steps back and gave it to Jimmy, he took care of the rest.
Butler saw daylight behind Holiday and Bucs wing Pat Connaughton at right block. Depending on your area code, he grabs the ball out of the air with one hand while being caught or pushed by Connaughton. In one move, while falling back, Butler flicked his wrist and flipped in an incredible shot with 0.5 seconds left in regulation.
“It was a perfect pass by Gabe,” Spoelstra said. “Gabe made a similar pass earlier in the season. But Jimmy had an unbelievable performance.
The possession halted the Heat’s second straight fourth-quarter rally. In Game 4, Miami rallied from a 14-point deficit. In Game 5, the Bucks held a 16-point advantage going into the final period. The Heat held the Bucks to 3-of-19 shooting in the fourth quarter, limiting them to just one made field goal in the first eight minutes of the period.
Butler scored 14 of his game-high 42 points in the fourth quarter, leading the Heat to turn the game around 32-16 in the frame. On the final bucket in regulation, he showed the kind of smarts Spoelstra talks about following Game 4. The way Butler described it, it sounded like he was preparing for the entire series.
“The whole series for that matter, you could say that Zuru didn’t take a body out of me,” Butler said. “He’s not going to shoot the gap. He’s not going to do all that. So I said, ‘Every time I turn this corner, I guarantee you he’s going to lock up and back off. He’s got no choice but to stay behind.’
“He (Spoelstra) trusted me at that point, like he’s done so many times. … He was like, ‘Go ahead, man. Take us home.’ “
Butler’s averages in this series look like something out of a video game, certainly not the type of numbers one would normally pile up against a championship favorite considered the best player in the world. He finished with averages of 37.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.8 steals. He averaged 23.8 shots, but shot 59.7 percent, including 44.4 percent on 5.4 3-pointers.
“I’m in a groove. I’m in a rhythm,” Butler said. “I’ve been shooting the ball an unbelievable amount this series. But I feel like they’re all shots I can make, and my teammates keep telling me to shoot the ball more and hit it.” It was what it was. But no matter what, whether I scored, whether I defended, whether I rebounded, whatever, we had to win. Win at all costs. We did it.
Next up is a second-round series against the arch-rival New York Knicks. Game 1 is set for Sunday at noon (ET).
But the Heat didn’t advance without getting big contributions up and down their roster. The list is long of everything to get here in Miami.
Two weeks ago, the Heat were on the verge of exiting the play-in race. They rallied and advanced to the playoffs as the 8th seed. They benefited from Antetokounmpo missing the better part of the first three games of this series. But they endured the loss of Tyler Hero to a season-ending broken wrist in Game 1 and Victor Oladipo to a knee injury in Game 3.
On Wednesday, the Heat faced Bucs attacks in the second and third quarters. Milwaukee outscored Miami 69-50 in the middle periods.
Vincent said: “I don’t think we ever lost faith in ourselves. “We kept it really tight in our locker room and we believed in ourselves what we could do. And we were confident in our ability to execute the extension. We’ve had a lot of close games this season. We know if we cut it to 10 or six we can score a run.
Miami had its second clutch game of the regular season with 54 runs. The Heat went 32-22 in those games. The team’s 22nd-ranked post-All-Star defense turned out to be the NBA’s worst in the clutch, holding opponents to 87.2 points per 100 possessions. The Heat are no stranger to being outplayed in the final two games against the Bucks.
“It’s one of those seasons for whatever reason,” Spoelstra said. “We’ve been going through a lot of adversity. Guys in and out of the lineup. All these clutch games. Close games. Gotta go through the playoffs. I feel like it was the end of our second-round series.
“Whatever the reason – and this is what you always hope for – all these experiences have brought this team closer and connected. Below, it’s an example of the many hardships and bravery we have to show.
The Heat didn’t just overcome rousing rallies and double-digit deficits. They overcame the Bucs’ massive size advantage and Milwaukee’s massive free-throw disparity. Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez take turns playing bully ball, shooting over rising and short Heat defenders. The frontcourt combined for 56 points on 21-of-38 shooting. Antetokounmpo attempted more and nearly made more than the Heat, with 23 free throws. Milwaukee went 28 for 45 from the foul line and Antetokounmpo finished 10 of 23. The Heat were 11-of-17.
They bear the warm hand of Chris Middleton. The Bucks’ sharpshooter scored 17 first-quarter points and 11 in the third. But through the fourth quarter and overtime, Middleton mustered just five points on 0-of-5 shooting.
And Miami endured foul trouble. Kevin Love, Adebayo and Lowry were fouled on Wednesday. Love was big again with 15 points and 12 rebounds. Adebayo’s 20-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist triple-double in the fourth quarter and overtime doesn’t tell the full story of how Antetokounmpo changed the complexion of the game. Lowry provided the 10 points he needed off the bench with timely shots.
The Heat plugin kept playing.
“We were on course. Never too high. Never too low,” Lowry said.
“We have Jimmy Butler.”
(Photo by Jimmy Butler: Stacey Revere/Getty Images)