Jimmy Butler sort of disappeared in the Miami Heat’s previous two straight losses. And, yeah, it was on him.
He was an abysmal 7-for-32 shooting. The knee inflammation must have been a factor. Something was. Suddenly, Jimmy Buckets was fading fast, and so was the Heat’s chances of reaching the NBA Finals.
It seemed about time for panic mode as Miami faced elimination in Game 6 in Boston Friday night.
“Jimmy’ll be fine,” coach Erik Spoelstra had said before the literal must-win game. “He’ll figure it out.”
Well, he figured it out.
Jimmy was fine.
OK, better than fine.
By a lot.
The Heat’s leading scorer, and leader, scored a career playoff-high 47 points as the Heat saved its season in a 111-103 Game 6 win that brings the series back to Miami for a grand finale on Sunday night.
Four 3-point baskets were a part of Butler’s night, as were nine rebounds, eight assists and four steals. The game and the night belonged to him. For Miami’s season to live on, it had to.
It was the most points ever by any Heat player in a playoff elimination game. More than D-Wade. More LeBron. It was simply one of the greatest main-stage clutch performances in South Florida sports history -- not just Heat.
Now: That most rare, most delightful, most terrifying two words in all of sports are back with us:
“No two better words in pro sports,” said Spoelstra.
The winner’s prize: A spot in the NBA Finals to take on the Golden State Warriors, with Game 1 Thursday night in San Francisco.
Steph Curry has the luxury to rest up and wait.
Butler and Jayson Tatum, et al, have a bit more work to do.
Butler was being interviewed postgame when teammate Udonis Haslem interjected a thank-you to Golden State’s Draymond Green, who had predicted the Warriors would face Boston -- old-school bulletin board material for Miami.
ESPN spent some airtime Friday previewing what a Warriors-Celtics Finals would look like.
“Everybody thought this series was already over,” Bam Adebayo said. “That’s all the motivation we needed.”
Hmm. Green and The Worldwide Leader may yet prove to have been right. But, first, this minor matter:
Game 7. In Miami.
In the combined 93 seasons for the Heat, Panthers and Marlins this will be only 15th of them, and the 11th in South Florida. The last two were by the Heat in the 2016 playoffs.
This is Miami’s ninth time in the Eastern Conference finals. The first two were losses. The next six in a row were wins and advances to the Finals. The Heat go for seven straight now -- and a chance at the franchise’s fourth championship parade down Biscayne Boulevard.
Game 6 was the one this weird series needed.
After a run of lopsided wins by both teams, a lack of drama, frankly, an absence of tension and taut finishes, Friday night delivered -- the perfect stage-setter for a Game 7.
It might have taken a Victor Oladipo charge by Jaylen Brown with 12.1 seconds left before Heat fans back home could brearhe.
“I know how ignitable our guys are,” Spoelstra had said of his faith in getting that ultimate game. “If you’re competitive, you love these kind of moments.”
But the other team does, too.
“Be there for each other,” Spoelstra had told his team in his pregame remarks. “We’re going to be great tonight.”
Both teams were. Neither wanted it more. Neither worked harder.
But there needed to be someone to be the difference.
Butler did it.
Miami does not have a consistent second scoring option like Tatum does with Brown. especially with Tyler Herro missing a third straight game injured Friday. Max Strus and Kyle Lowry both fouled out late.
But the Heat has Butler, whose ability to rise and take over games was a welcome old friend after a couple of games away.
Butler just lifted Miami -- city and team -- to this mammoth, singular stage.
No matter what happens, it will start with epic.
“This is the way it should be,” Spoelstra.