Jimmy Butler and Jamal Murray averaged the same number of points in the NBA Finals, and that is why the Miami Heat lost.
It’s difficult to look at an NBA Finals series as lopsided as Denver’s 4-1 gentlemen’s sweep of the Heat in a vacuum. Miami was overmatched, shorthanded, and competing against the player who should have won his third straight league Most Valuable Player of the Year this season.
The Nuggets had the deeper team one through five, a transcendent point center in Nikola Jokic and had the healthiest starting five of any team in the playoffs.
With the deck stacked, the Heat had just one viable route to emerge from this series as NBA champions.
Jimmy Butler had to be special.
And not just special, because special is what got the Heat to the NBA Finals in the first place. Special is how Butler powered the Heat past the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, courtesy of 37 points per game against the NBA’s top-ranked regular-season defense. Special is how Butler bullied the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, winning Game 7 at the TD Garden to punch Miami’s ticket to the big dance.
The Heat needed Butler to be more than special. They needed him to elevate to the undeniable level of superstardom that has evaded him all of his career.
That level continued to elude him in the NBA Finals against the Nuggets: The Heat star finished Game 5 with just 21 points on 5-of-18 shooting from the field. He averaged 21.6 points, 6.4 assists and 4.6 rebounds through all five NBA Finals games.
Meanwhile, Murray joined Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson as the last three guards to post 100 points and 50 assists in an NBA Finals series while shooting at least 45% from the field.
Getting outplayed by the opponent’s second-best player? Hardly special.
In fact, Butler wasn’t even the third-best player of the series: Jokic became the first center to win Finals MVP since Shaquille O’Neale in 2002; Murray flirted with a triple-double all series long, and Bam Adebayo — not Butler — led the Heat in scoring and played far more impactful minutes on both ends of the floor for the entirety of Miami’s championship run.
The Heat needed more from their leader, and he did not deliver: Of Butler’s 21 points, nearly half (nine) came at the foul line. Not to mention he played on cruise control for the game’s first 45 minutes before stringing together 13 points in a two-and-a-half-minute stretch in crunch time.
Butler’s short-lived, late-game theatrics may have impressed the untrained eye, but it was too little, too late for a player who had shot just 2-of-13 through the first three quarters. He then fumbled a potential Game 6 away in Game 5′s final 30 seconds: First by driving into the paint, losing his footing, then throwing the ball directly to Denver’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a sequence that turned a one-point game into a three-point deficit and cost Miami a valuable timeout.
“I turned the ball over,” Butler said of the game’s final two minutes. “That’s what stood out.”
On the very next possession, with time on the shot clock to create a better look, Butler attempted to tie the game on a turnaround fading three from the top of the key.
Again: Hardly special.
Maybe Heat coach Erik Spoelstra should have turned to Tyler Herro.
Herro broke his wrist in Game 1 of the first-round series against the Bucks and missed nearly two months of action before receiving clearance to play in Monday night’s elimination Game 5.
Spoelstra said pregame it would be “all hands on deck,” and that he would assess the game to determine whether or not Herro’s services would be needed. Reminder: This is a former Sixth Man of the Year who averaged 20 points per game for Miami before suffering his injury.
Which is why it became more and more befuddling to watch the second-unit scorer stew on the bench while both Butler and his Heat teammates struggled to generate offense. The Heat scored just 18 points in the fourth quarter as Spoelstra kept Herro sidelined.
“It’s just a really tough call, and I’ll probably have to wrestle with that all summer,” Spoelstra said of his decision. “That’s the hardest-played, most physical competition you can have, and that would be a tough thing for a guy that’s been out for two months that hasn’t had any kind of ramp-up.
“But that won’t save me from thinking about that for the next few weeks.”
And while the Nuggets enjoy the hangover associated with the champagne showers they enjoyed in the locker room, the Heat leave the NBA Finals with more questions than answers.
Chief among those questions after fizzling out in Game 5: Can Butler get it done as this team’s No. 1 scoring option, or will it take more for the Heat to return to NBA Finals, let alone dethrone the Nuggets should these two teams meet again down the road?
The Heat have already been rumored to have interest in Portland Trail Blazers’ bona fide superstar Damian Lillard, and Miami can put together an attractive trade package built around Herro, role players and draft compensation. With the June 22 NBA Draft looming and free agency commencing shortly thereafter, there will be no shortage of opportunities for the Heat to explore adding additional firepower to a team that made the conference finals two years in a row.
Just any old firepower, however, won’t do.
The Heat need another closer, given their current one couldn’t get it done. It could be the only way to tangibly raise Miami’s ceiling given no one expected they would make it to the Finals in the first place — and likely fewer expect the Heat to return in the years to come without a landscape-altering mega deal.
“You never know what the team’s gonna look like next year or the year after that. I’m just grateful. I learned so much. They taught me so much, and I wish I could have gotten it done for these guys because they definitely deserve it,” Butler said. “You don’t have to score 100 points to win a basketball game. I think we’ll be OK. That’s Coach Pat [Riley] and Coach Spo’s job to put together another team, which I’m confident they will do. And we’ll take it from there.”
Source: Berkshire mont