Miami Heat All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler scored a career-playoff-high 40 points in Monday's 115-104 Game 1 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, taking over the game down the stretch just like his teammates and coaches thought he would. Butler repeatedly made big plays on both ends of the floor, much to the delight of a Heat roster that is 5-0 in the NBA postseason bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
"I told my teammates I probably wasn't gonna pass the ball," Butler said of his late-game mindset. "I made a couple shots, and they said, 'That's fine with me.'"
Butler, who signed with the Heat last summer, became just the third player in franchise history to have a 40-point playoff game, according to ESPN Stats & Information, joining Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. Butler also became the first player in franchise history to score 40 in Game 1 of a series. After the game ended, Butler noted that Wade, a close friend of his dating to their time playing together with the Chicago Bulls, has been in his ear the past few weeks pumping him up.
"I've learned," Butler said of being able to take over games late. "But I've watched so many great players. And it's great to have D-Wade in my corner, I'm telling you. He's always in my phone, telling me about the game, what to look for. He's been a huge help. He's the first person that texts me tonight whenever I get back to the locker room. I'm learning. I've been learning. I will continue to learn. I just want to win, though. I can't say it enough."
As great as Butler's performance was, it was only one reason that the Heat were able to strike the first blow in this Eastern Conference semifinal series. After giving up 40 points in the first quarter, Erik Spoelstra's group settled in and got back on track defensively.
As will be key throughout the series, the Heat threw player after player at reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, forcing the Bucks to make somebody else beat them. After a strong first half by Khris Middleton, Milwaukee didn't have another answer down the stretch, and the Heat's long and athletic defense frustrated Antetokounmpo to the tune of 6-for-12 from the field and 4-for-12 from the free throw line.
"It was certainly better than the first quarter," Spoelstra said of his team's defense. "[The Bucks] were lighting us up. And they're just extremely dangerous, the shooting and Giannis' ability to break down your defense and collapse your defense. So you constantly have to stay focused and do your work early."
The Heat did plenty of work down the stretch, holding strong in the paint after a rocky first 12 minutes. The Bucks scored just 24 points in the paint, their fewest all season, per ESPN Stats & Info. The Bucks were outscored by 18 points off turnovers, the second-worst point differential in a game all season. The Heat were proud that they outrebounded the Bucks 46-34, not allowing Milwaukee to race up and down the floor for easy shots.
Heat All-Star big man Bam Adebayo, who finished with 17 rebounds and six assists, became the first player in franchise history with at least 15 rebounds and five assists in consecutive playoff games. Spoelstra got another huge lift from veteran Goran Dragic (27-6-5), who became the first Heat player to score at least 25 points, grab 5 rebounds and dish out 5 assists in a playoff game since James did so in Game 5 of the 2014 NBA Finals.
Still, it was Butler, with the encouragement of his teammates, who delivered when the group needed it.
"For me, it's my teammates," Butler said. "[Andre Iguodala]'s coming to me: 'Yo, win the game.' Goran: 'Win the game.' Duncan [Robinson]: 'Win the game.' And it's not about just scoring -- it's about guarding, it's about making the right play, getting the 50-50 ball. That's all part of winning the game. And I felt like I took it up a level in the fourth quarter. If that needs to happen every game, I gotta be able to do it. But we've got so many guys that are capable of doing it for us."