Butler excellent, new-look rotation with Bam out, other takeaways from Heat’s win over Mavs

·10 min read
Rich Storry/Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports

Five takeaways from the Miami Heat’s 129-122 win over the Dallas Mavericks (37-41) on Saturday night at Miami-Dade Arena. The Heat (41-37) now hits the road to begin a three-game trip on Tuesday against the Pistons in Detroit:

The Heat didn’t have All-Star center Bam Adebayo or much defense on Saturday, but it did have star Jimmy Butler. That was enough to snap a three-game skid.

With Adebayo sitting out Saturday’s game because of a right hip contusion, Butler carried the load with 35 points on 12-of-16 shooting from the field, 1-of-3 shooting on threes and 10-of-11 shooting from the foul line, three rebounds, 12 assists, one steal and zero turnovers to lead the Heat to the victory.

Butler is the third player this season to finish a game with at least 30 points and 10 assists while not committing a turnover, joining New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram and Denver’s Nikola Jokic.

“His competitiveness will always trump everything,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Butler. “He lives for the competitive moments, he’s going to rise above the competition and carry us all along with him.”

Butler was assertive from the start, scoring 14 of the Heat’s first 20 points. He closed the opening period with 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the field for his highest-scoring first quarter of the season.

The result was the Heat’s highest-scoring first quarter of the season, as Miami entered the second quarter with a 44-31 lead.

Butler then totaled six points and four assists in the second quarter, as the Heat went on to score 76 points in the first half for its highest-scoring half of the season. Miami led by as many as 18 points in the first half and entered halftime ahead by 12 points.

The problem was the Heat’s defense struggled to stop the Mavericks’ trio of Luka Doncic, Kyrie Irving and Tim Hardaway Jr., so Saturday’s game still ended up coming down to the final minutes. It went down as the Heat’s league-leading 53rd clutch game ((one that has a margin of five points or fewer inside the final five minutes of the fourth quarter) of the season.

With the Mavericks shooting a scorching 62.7 percent from the field and 11 of 27 (40.7 percent) from three-point range through the first three quarters, Dallas cut the deficit to just six points entering the fourth period.

But Butler shut the door in the final quarter.

With the Mavericks again pulling within six points with 3:59 to play, Butler made a midrange jumper and then picked off a bad pass and took it for a dunk on the other end for his own personal 4-0 run to push the Heat’s lead back up to 10 with 3:21 remaining.

The Mavericks then responded with five unanswered points to cut the deficit to five points with 2:21 on the clock. Butler again had an answer to draw fouls on consecutive possessions and hit three of the four free throws to extend the Heat’s lead back up to eight with 1:40 to play.

In total, Butler scored nine of the Heat’s final 10 points of the game.

“The key to everything was Jimmy,” Heat forward Max Strus said. “He’s so good, it makes everybody so much better. He’s easy to play with and he makes us look good.

“He’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever been around. One of the greatest basketball minds I’ve ever seen.”

Butler’s excellence was the catalyst, but the Heat also won the game in the margins. Miami outscored Dallas 23-15 in points off turnovers, 7-3 in second-chance points and 26-14 at the foul line.

It also helps that the Heat posted an elite offensive rating of 131.6 points scored per 100 possessions, which is Miami’s third-best single-game offensive rating of the season.

That was enough for the Heat to overcome 96 combined points from the Mavericks’ trio of Doncic, Irving and Hardaway.

Doncic closed with a game-high 42 points to go with 10 rebounds and eight assists.

Hardaway finished with 31 points, six rebounds and seven assists.

Irving ended the night with 23 points and eight assists.

The Mavericks, which have dropped nine of their past 12 games, lost Saturday despite shooting 61 percent from the field and 14 of 34 (41.2 percent) from beyond the arc. Dallas became just the 17th team since 2000 to lose a game while shooting 60 percent or better from the field.

The Heat is 13-2 this season when posting an offensive rating better than 120 points scored per 100 possessions.

“We made shots, too,” Butler said. “... I don’t like the fact that they shot 61 percent, but I do like the fact that we finally won a game.”

Even with Saturday’s win, the Heat faces an uphill battle to avoid the play-in tournament.

With just four regular-season games left to play, the No. 7 Heat (41-37) is now four games behind the No. 5 New York Knicks (45-33) and 1.5 games behind the No. 6 Brooklyn Nets (42-35). Both the Knicks and Nets were idle on Saturday.

To escape having to qualify for the playoffs through the play-in tournament, the Heat needs to finish as a top-six playoff seed in the East. The seventh through 10th-place teams in each conference participate in the play-in tournament.

The fifth seed isn’t completely out of reach for the Heat, but there’s only one path for Miami to get there and it’s extremely unlikely. The Heat would need to win each of its four remaining regular-season games, the Knicks would need to lose each of their four remaining games, and the Nets would need to win exactly three of their five remaining games to create a three-way tie at 45-37 that the Heat would win as the only division winner of the group.

The sixth seed is a more realistic goal for the Heat over the final week of the regular season, but it won’t be easy to catch the Nets.

Since the Heat does not hold the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Nets, Miami needs to finish with a better record to pass them. For example, if the Heat wins three of its four remaining games, the Nets would need to lost at least four of its five remaining games for Miami to move into No. 6 and avoid the play-in tournament.

Saturday’s win also moved the Heat 2.5 games ahead of the eighth-place Atlanta Hawks and ninth-place Toronto Raptors.

Closing the regular season as the No. 7 seed and hosting a play-in game against the No. 8 team for the right to the East’s seventh playoff seed is, by far, the most likely outcome for the Heat.

Adebayo was “not able to move,” so he missed Saturday’s game.

Adebayo was unavailable against the Mavericks because of a right hip contusion he suffered on a hard fall during Wednesday’s loss to the Knicks in New York. It marked just the sixth game Adebayo has missed this season with an injury or illness.

“Just the movement,” Spoelstra said prior to Saturday’s contest when asked about the decision to hold out Adebayo. “He’s just not able to move. He couldn’t play in a game tonight. But he is getting better. He’s going to spend the next several hours just getting treatment. He might only come out for the second half because there’s going to be a bunch of protocols that he’s going to do for the next few hours. He really wants to be out there, but we’ve been dealing with this all season long. So we’ll adjust and have guys ready.”

Adebayo’s next opportunity to return will come Tuesday against the Pistons in Detroit.

The Heat also remained without Jamal Cain (G League), Nikola Jovic (back spasms) and Orlando Robinson (G League) against the Mavericks.

Adebayo’s absence created a ripple effect throughout the Heat’s rotation, and Cody Zeller and Kevin Love flourished in their new roles.

With Adebayo unavailable, Zeller moved into a starting role on Saturday. It marked the 274th regular-season start of Zeller’s NBA career, but his first since May 15, 2021.

But the insertion of Zeller into the starting lineup for Adebayo wasn’t the only change to the Heat’s rotation. Strus also started in Love’s place against the Mavericks, as Love played off the bench on Saturday for the first time since joining the Heat during the mid-February All-Star break.

The Heat used its 24th different starting lineup of the season, opening Saturday’s game with the five-man combination of Gabe Vincent, Tyler Herro, Strus, Butler and Zeller.

Zeller was impressive in his first start in nearly two years, recording season-highs in points (20) and minutes (29) while shooting 9 of 13 from the field and also grabbing eight rebounds. He said he was “exhausted” after playing nearly 30 minutes.

“I just try to do whatever the team needs, whether it’s 10 or 12 minutes to give Bam a rest or tonight with the starters,” Zeller said. “So it was a lot of minutes for me compared to the shape that I’m in. But it felt good.”

Zeller scored most of his points as the roll man in pick-and-rolls with Butler, as Butler assisted on seven of his nine made field goals. All nine of Zeller’s makes came at the rim — six layups and three dunks.

“To be honest with you, that was all Jimmy,” Zeller said. “He’s so intelligent. He sees the game. He was telling me exactly where to go. So I just rolled and shot layups all night.”

The Heat’s bench rotation against the Mavericks included Kyle Lowry, Caleb Martin, Love and Duncan Robinson.

The four available Heat players who did not get into Saturday’s game were Victor Oladipo, Omer Yurtseven, Haywood Highsmith and Udonis Haslem.

Saturday was arguably Love’s best outing in a Heat uniform, recording 18 points and five rebounds in 19 minutes while playing as the backup center with Adebayo out and Zeller moving into the starting lineup. It’s the most points Love has scored since joining the Heat.

What remains to be seen is whether Love’s move to the bench is permanent or temporary with Adebayo’s absence forcing the Heat to re-think its lineup combinations. Spoelstra was non-committal after the game regarding that issue, only saying “we went with a different starting lineup and that might be the way we go for the next four games.”

“He gave us a great spark off the bench with his skill level, his shooting, opening up a lot of different things for us,” Spoelstra added on Love.

Strus’ three-point shooting numbers have not been what he hoped for, but Saturday was one of his best shooting displays of the season.

Strus, in his 29th start of the season, ended the night with 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting from three-point range in 30 minutes. It’s the second-most three-pointers he has made in a game this season.

There just haven’t been enough of these efficient performances from Strus, who entered shooting 34.3 percent on 7.1 three-point attempts per game this season. He shot 41 percent on 6.5 three-point attempts per game last season.

“It was fun to be in that lineup and play with that unit and I’m glad it worked out well,” Strus said of playing as a starter against the Mavericks. “The ball moved and we just played the right way. It was simple.”