Leading up to Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Tuesday night, the Miami Heat were being relegated by many in the wide basketball orbit as an afterthought.
Most of the conversation regarding the series was centered around the Boston Celtics and their superb young forward Jason Tatum, 24, who had elevated himself from the dimension of star to superstardom over a seven game period by carrying his team to a 4-3 series win over the 2021 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks in their conference semifinal matchup.
The Heat and especially their six-time All Star Jimmy Butler rightly had a chip on their shoulders. They concluded the regular season as the East’s top seed above the No. 2 seed Celtics, posting a record of 53-29, then dismissing the Atlanta Hawks 4-1 and Philadelphia 76ers 4-2 in the first round and Eastern Conference semifinals respectively to reach the conference finals. Furthermore, Butler had played like a top 10 NBA player in both series, a status in which he is rarely considered by a majority of media talking heads and fans.
So his 41-point virtuoso display in Game 1, leading the Heat to a 118-107 win over the Celtics, was a message sent: Butler and the Heat are indisputably for real. “I think I speak for my teammates and the Miami Heat organization,” said Butler following his third game of 40 points or more this postseason, “…I don’t do this to score 40 points. I play the way that I play to win.
“By all means necessary and it just so happens that I scored 40. But if I scored 40 and we lose I’d be really pissed off.” Butler’s high point output was needed, even on a night the Celtics played without starting center Al Horford (health and safety protocols) and starting point guard Marcus Smart (right foot sprain). Yet he did much more than put the ball in the basket.
The 32-year-old Butler authored a complete game on a night the Heat fell behind by 62-54 at home by halftime. The five-time All NBA Defensive Second Team selection was locked in guarding on all three levels, including a highlight block of a Tatum jump shot from the left corner, one of his three blocks to go along with four steals. He also added nine rebounds to his stat line.
Tatum paced the Celtics with 29 and Jaylen Brown had 24. NBA Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro contributed 18 for the Heat off the bench. Game 2 is tonight in Miami, with Games 3 and 4 in Boston Saturday and Monday.