The game was in Jimmy Butler’s hands, as it should have been, when he made a decision that will forever be second-guessed. With less than 17 seconds remaining in the Miami Heat season, Butler quickly went for the win and attempted a three-pointer that would have given his team their first lead of the game. It rimmed out, and the Boston Celtics held on to win Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals 100-96. In doing so, they clinched their first NBA finals appearance since 2010, leaving Butler and the Heat with plenty of what ifs.
Butler was philosophical about a play that may well follow him for the rest of his career. “Thought process was to go for the win, which I did,” he said. “Missed the shot but I’m taking that shot. My teammates liked the shot I took so I’m living with it.”
The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown certainly wasn’t expecting Butler to miss, not after all the pain Butler caused his team all season long. “When he shot that,” Brown said after the game, “I was like, man, what the hell?”
Game 7 was a rough, ugly beast filled with beyond-questionable officiating, momentum-defying scoring runs and endless amounts of stress for both fanbases. Only Celtics fans will likely remember their team, who had a 17-point lead at one point, being unable to buy a field goal during the contest’s final five minutes.
Similarly, only Heat fans will likely bitterly recall that, in the third quarter, a Max Strus three-pointer was called good on the floor and then – many minutes later – was overturned for being just barely out of bounds. It was three points that would have changed the entire complexion of that fateful Butler possession.
Instead, for most NBA fans, the lasting image of Game 7 will be Butler opting not to run the clock down a little before going for an easier game-tying two. This is unfortunate because if it weren’t for Butler, there wouldn’t have even been a Game 7. His 47 points in Game 6, combined with ridiculously sloppy ball handling by the Celtics, kept the Heat alive. He put up a second-straight big game on Sunday night, scoring 35 points and should have won the Eastern Conference finals MVP (it went to the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum instead).
Yes, Butler was just a 23.3% three-point shooter this season, but he is almost unstoppable when on a hot streak. Playing for overtime is a questionable decision when your team has willed their way through an extremely physical seven-game series, especially considering that Butler was on the floor for all 48 minutes of the finale. (As many pointed out, the true winner on Sunday night was very much the well-rested Golden State Warriors who closed out their series against the Dallas Mavericks way back on Thursday.)
The Heat were lucky to even have the opportunity to win in those climactic seconds. The Celtics, the more talented team on paper, almost gave the game away, something which has been a common occurrence for them. Some of those struggles were due to the fact that this is a young team that’s built around their homegrown core of 24-year-old Tatum, 25-year-old Brown, 28-year-old Marcus Smart and 24-year-old Robert Williams (the latter two were clearly hobbled by injuries throughout the series).
It’s understandable that these young C’s were taking their lumps against a top-seeded Heat team helmed by a championship coach in Erik Spoelstra. His counterpart on the Celtics, first-time head coach Ime Udoka almost certainly hopes that they don’t continue with the unforced turnovers and bad fouls when facing a much more dangerous Warriors team.
Acting as Udoka’s de facto assistant was big man Al Horford, who is heading to his first NBA finals at age 35 in his second stint in Boston. For the longest time, the Celtics attempted to complement their young team with an All-Star point guard – first Kyrie Irving and then Kemba Walker – but neither ended up being the right fit.
Over the offseason, team president Brad Stevens made the decision to ship Walker to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Horford, who ended up being the stabilizing influence the team desperately needed. It’s fitting that the final rebound ended up in his hands.
In the end, it was the Heat who made the questionable decision that decided the series. If Butler had cashed in that open look – and he had made a similar three-pointer earlier in the game – he would have established himself as an all-time Heat icon. Instead of being the hero of the Eastern Conference finals, Butler will end up being remembered by some as the goat of the series.
It’s an entirely unfair fate but basketball is an unfair sport. Hard-fought games often come down to a single basket: there’s a reason they call the NBA a “make or miss league.” Butler decided to roll the dice with a high-risk, highest-reward shot rather than try for a tie that would have still given the Celtics an opportunity to win.
That’s the kind of player that he has always been, and it’s the kind of approach to the game that brought the Heat so close to a second NBA finals in three seasons. Jimmy Butler should hold his head high.