The best players write their own stories. Miami Heat protagonist Jimmy Butler knew what he was doing late Friday night when he revealed the private conversation he had with franchise legend Dwyane Wade ahead of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. According to Butler, Wade told him to forget his knee pain because nobody cares anyway and “keep building on his legacy.”
A good storyteller like Butler would call that context. If he needed a little more excitement, Butler could have used details from teammates PJ Tucker and Markieff Morris, who told him he had to drop 50 in the must-win game. With that kind of build-up, the crowd ended up enjoying even more: Butler’s sensational night, which included a playoff career-high 47 points, plus nine rebounds, eight assists and four steals – on the Boston Celtics’ home field.
Now with another postseason masterpiece – a feat that rivals some of the greatest ever seen in eliminations – Butler’s legacy only heightens the anticipation of a moment in Sunday’s Game 7 in Miami.
“Jimmy Butler is a great competitor; he really is,” said Heat coach Erik Spolestra, using his star’s full name because plain old “Jimmy” no longer suffices. “You can misdefine him in many different ways, but his competitive spirit is as high as anyone who’s played this game. He left his fingerprints on this game.”
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Boston could use more of Jayson Tatum’s and Jaylen Brown’s impressions in Game 7. The two grew up together as professionals, the baby Cs who never had much use for a big brother. Injuries ruined Gordon Hayward’s tenure in Boston (2017-2020), and Kyrie Irving’s cameo lasted just two years and produced a stinging effect that will linger every time he steps onto the TD Garden floor.
Without relying on a veteran superstar, the young tandem learned from their early ups and downs (the seven-game Eastern Conference Finals against the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers during Tatum’s rookie season), evolving into stars themselves and pulled Boston out of the play-in picture and into the championship shot that season.
Through every round of the playoffs – defeating Irving, Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets; then dethrone the champion Milwaukee Bucks — the duo have silenced any remaining questions about whether or not they are a match. Their partnership gave Boston the context its story needed: three games to two. Expected even by his potential adversary waiting to the west; Draymond Green and the Golden State Warriors had just bought their ticket to the Finals Thursday night when Green prophesied on TNT, “We’re going to play Boston.
And on their home floor, where a win for Tatum, 24, would surely have lifted the trophy named after Boston favorite Larry Bird as the first-ever MVP of the Eastern Conference Finals.
A win and Tatum and Brown would have soared into the rare green air of Celtic lore. But Butler had a chat with Wade, ignored the ongoing inflammation in his right knee, and then spent the night writing more chapters in Playoff Jimmy’s book.
“D-Wade never hits me until his voice is really, really needed. And that was it,” Butler said. “I texted him and told him I appreciate him for it. Just let me go out there, keep building on that legacy and make sure we win.
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At the same time, the two Boston stars – neither of whom have earned such a cool nickname yet – disappeared when the game mattered most. Together they scored seven field goals in the second half.
As individuals, they looked more like the rookies of 2018 than the veterans they were meant to be: Tatum spent the fourth quarter treating the ball like it was saturated in butter, committing four of his game-high seven turnovers during Brown blew a pair of late free throws as the teams tied at 99. Butler wrote about their mistakes with his own story and came up on Miami’s next possession, diving in from the right baseline and scoring from Al Horford’s foul.
“Sometimes you just need your best players and your man to make moves,” said Spoelstra. “He could do that in those moments of truth.”
There is perhaps no drama in sport more compelling than a Game 7, but often the previous duel can be just as exciting. We won’t get the indelible image of LeBron, hunched over and eyes menacing, unless he first saves the Heat against Boston in Game 6 of the 2012 Conference Finals. Klay Thompson doesn’t call himself “Game 6 Klay” without his impressive performance leading the Golden State Warriors past Oklahoma City in 2016 on a night they could have been eliminated. And there’s no Jay-Z call to “Jackson…Tyson…Jordan – Game 6″ unless Michael Jordan beats that championship jumper against the Utah Jazz in 1998.
Add the power of Butler’s Game 6 to the same top shelf. Only Wilt Chamberlain scored more points (50) than Butler in a road playoff win while facing elimination. The player with the third most points in the same scenario? Tatum, who scored 46 points in Game 6 against the Bucks in the previous round.
Legacies are at stake on Sunday. Butler seemed to understand that as early as Game 6; Tatum and Brown don’t. To use Heat teammate Kyle Lowry’s description of how Butler seized the moment like a superstar should: “It’s bloody incredible.”
He may need the beep button, but Butler’s narrative continues to grow. Perhaps a few words of wisdom could help the young Boston stars as they attempt to write their own legacy.