If you tuned out of Game 7 when the Boston Celtics went up 13 with three and a half minutes to play, you made a mistake. The Heat stormed back on an 11-0 run and actually had possession, down two, with the shot clock turned off.
Even better, the ball was in the hands of Jimmy Butler, who had once again been phenomenal in Game 7 after going for 47 in Game 6. Butler secured the rebound off a Marcus Smart miss and pushed, and in the cross-matching congestion of semi transition he had Al Horford in front of him with the floor perfectly spread and no help at the rim — a seemingly ideal situation to put his head down and drive for either a layup, one of his pivoting paint finishes or a foul.
But Butler didn’t do that. Instead, down two, he attempted to deliver the knockout blow, pulling up for the potential game-winning 3-pointer with just under 17 seconds to play.
Had that shot gone in, Butler, depending on what the Celtics might’ve done on the other end with still plenty of time on the clock, was in line to etch his legacy as one of the most clutch performers in postseason history. But it didn’t go in, and now the criticism comes. Was that really the right shot to take in that situation?
In a vacuum, no, it probably wasn’t the best decision. Butler is not a good 3-point shooter, and he’s a beast going to the rim and either finishing or drawing fouls. Again, look at the space he had to operate with a full head of steam against a retreating big man.
There’s not a single defensive foot in the paint behind Horford. Continuing downhill probably would’ve been the better play. There’s no doubt the statistics would suggest as much. Having said that, consider these three things as it pertains to Butler’s decision and what his split-second thought process might’ve been.
1. Horford is no slouch
Earlier in the fourth quarter, Butler had seized a similar early-offense opportunity to attack the rim through an open lane, and while he did finish the bucket, Horford contested him so stoutly that closer examination revealed Butler having to clear out with his off arm, for what should’ve been called an offensive foul, to even get the shot off.
True, Horford wasn’t the one having to stay in front of Butler in this play, as he was on the play in question, but Horford is more than capable of moving his feet on the perimeter, and chances are, if he does stay reasonably close to where he can contest at the rim, officials are going to give him a lot of leeway to defend aggressively at that juncture of a Game 7. Was all of this in Butler’s mind as the final possession played out? I don’t know. But it could’ve been.
2. Butler had to be exhausted
Butler played all 48 minutes in Game 7 after he’d scored 47 points in a do-or-die win in Boston two days earlier. Going by Horford and finishing through what surely would’ve been a lot of contact would’ve perhaps required more gas than Butler felt he had left in his tank.
This is important, also, when you consider that even had Butler been able to finish, or draw a foul and make two free throws, that only would’ve tied the score. If Miami was then able to get a stop on the next possession, Butler would’ve had to play, at the very least, five more minutes in overtime.
That would’ve made for 53 minutes on Butler’s already bum knee, and the Heat had nowhere else to turn for offense. Could he really have summoned enough juice to carry the load through overtime as well? Through that lens, ending the game on one shot certainly had understandable appeal.
3. Butler made the same shot in the first half
Even if nothing that I suggested above crossed Butler’s mind as he was dribbling up the court, and in the end he simply felt good about the pull-up 3 in front of him, there was a reason he felt good about it. He had made the exact same shot in the first half.
Indeed, Butler isn’t a great 3-point shooter. But he entered Game 7 hitting 34 percent from deep during the postseason, and he had just gone 4 for 8 from 3 in Miami’s Game 6 win.
All of this is to say, Butler, despite only scoring four points on 2-of-6 shooting in the fourth quarter on Sunday, earned the right to pull up for that shot with a chance to send the Heat to the Finals. He had 35 points on Sunday. That makes for 82 points over the last two games of this series. At every turn, Butler refused to let the Heat roll over. He has been the best player this postseason. On any team. I don’t even really think that’s debatable. He felt good about the shot, it was a clean look, and he had the guts to take it. You live with your best player making that decision every time, even if hindsight is always going to be 20-20.