Jimmy Butler leads Miami Heat back to Eastern Conference finals

PHILADELPHIA -- The Miami Heat are headed to the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in three years after closing out the Philadelphia 76ers 99-90 in Game 6 of their second-round series Thursday night.

As has been the case throughout the series, it was Jimmy Butler who led the way when his team needed him the most. After going just 3-for-10 in the first half, Butler got rolling in the third quarter, scoring 14 of his 32 points while carrying his team across the finish line.

"Jimmy is a great competitor," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Butler. "I think he's one of the ultimate competitors in this profession. So I think a lot of things get lost in translation. As this league sometimes gets younger I think it ends up being about some things that are not about winning.

"He competes on both ends. He is an extremely efficient offensive player. And when his only focus is just about driving a team to win, all the other things are just irrelevant -- that a lot of players and teams get caught up in. He's not caught up in that stuff. It's just about doing whatever it takes to win the game."

Heat center Bam Adebayo called Butler the "engine" of the Heat group and at 32 years old, Butler is playing with the type of confidence he showed during Miami's 2020 playoff run in the Orlando, Florida, bubble, where he delivered the Heat to within two wins from an NBA championship.

Butler explained that the reason he has become so comfortable closing out big games is because of the belief the rest of the Heat group has instilled in him.

"I think the confidence my teammates and my coaches put in me, it's a lot," Butler said. "They really be hyping me up out there and I just go play. I try everything in my power to make sure that we win. ... They just trust me with everything."

Aside from Butler's inspired play, Max Strus picked up the offensive slack for the second game in a row, pouring in 16 of his 20 points in the first half while setting the tone for a Heat team that came in confident it would knock down shots after going just 14-for-65 from beyond the arc during losses in Games 3 and 4 in Philadelphia.

Joel Embiid's injuries were the main storylines, both coming into and during the series. But it was Butler's overall performance that rose to the forefront over the last week and a half as Embiid, who was also dealing with a ligament injury in his thumb as well an orbital fracture, struggled to put up the same type of MVP-caliber performances that defined his regular season.

Butler spoke openly before and throughout the series about how much respect he had for Embiid and how much their friendship has grown since they were teammates during most of the 2018-19 season. Butler acknowledged there was a moment he thought he would be teammates with Embiid in Philadelphia for a long time, but "it didn't work out."

"I'm not complaining," Butler said. "I love being here in Miami. I love the group of guys that we have and I'm not changing anything that happened. I'm here for a reason, and we're going to ride this wave and take it back to the 305. Get ready for the next round and work our way towards this championship."

Butler said that he wasn't fueled by playing against his former team in this series, noting that while there was a moment he thought he would stay, "some things happened," and he moved on.

"Now I'm where I belong," Butler said. "I guess where I should have been a long time ago, a place where I'm welcome. I'm so grateful that coach Pat [Riley] believed in me, coach Spo, and then they were like, 'Yo, Just go. Figure out a way to get us to where we want to go.' And I'm on my way to doing that. I'm trying to tell y'all, I cannot do that without these guys on this roster. They believe in me, I believe in them and that's what works."

After a shaky Game 1 in which he went just 5-for-16 from the field, Butler found his rhythm and pushed his game close to the level he performed at during the playoffs in 2020. Butler had 73 points combined in Games 3 and 4 and racked up 23 points, nine rebounds and six assists during a crucial Game 5 win Tuesday night.

Now the Heat await the winner of the Milwaukee Bucks-Boston Celtics series. The Bucks have a 3-2 series lead. Game 6 of that series is Friday night in Milwaukee. A Bucks-Heat matchup would mark the third straight season the two teams have met in the playoffs. The Heat beat the Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2020 before the Bucks swept the Heat in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in 2021.

With Butler leading the way, the Heat remain confident they can find a way through whichever team they play next.

"He gets incredibly desperate in close games or when he sees the light at the end of the tunnel to close out a team," Spoelstra said of Butler. "He's not going to leave it to chance. And you saw it tonight. He was brilliant all series long. ... He saw the opportunity, 'Hey, we have an opportunity to end this tonight." He wasn't going to let this go to [Game ] 7."