For the third time in the last four seasons, Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler sat at the postgame podium and reflected on a magical playoff run that came up just short.
The 33-year-old, whose Heat lost in five games to the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Finals, said Monday night that he believes the Heat can still win a championship.
“I’ve had some helluva teammates come through and compete with me and give us the opportunity to win a championship,” Butler said. “I still believe, with everything in me, that we will do as a team here, as an organization, as a city in Miami.”
Though the Heat became just the first team during a full season to reach the NBA Finals after entering the playoffs as an eighth seed, Butler said before Monday night’s Game 5 that he wasn’t satisfied with leading what has been one of the most improbable runs in league history. For Butler, the chase is about winning his first championship.
“At the beginning of this year, we talked about winning a championship, competing to get to this point,” Butler said. “All the odds, eight seed, dadadadada – none of that matters.”
Butler is a six-time All-Star and has appeared on five All-NBA teams over his 12-year career. His playoff heroics and tendency to raise his game as the stage gets bigger have created a mythology about him. Basketball Reference gives him a 73% chance of making the Hall of Fame. The one blemish on Butler’s resumé is the lack of a world championship.
The Heat have gotten close now three times in the four years since Butler arrived in Miami. They lost to the Lakers in the 2020 Bubble, came within a shot of eliminating the Celtics in the East finals and taking on the Warriors in the 2022 Finals, then came up short against the Nuggets with Monday night’s 94-89 loss in Game 5.
By the time the Heat reached these Finals, Butler was not the same player that began this improbable run. In Miami’s opening round, Butler averaged nearly 38 points, including scoring 56 in Game 5, to eliminate the top-seeded Bucks. Against the Knicks in the second round, Butler picked apart New York’s defense to lift the Heat in a physical series. Butler missed Game 2 of that series after turning his right ankle in Game 1. Butler reaggravated that ankle injury against the Celtics in the conference finals and was clearly hobbled by the end of it. When the NBA Finals began on June 1, Butler did not have nearly as much lift on his drives to the basket and had to carefully pick his spots to be aggressive.
“My ankle is fine,” Butler countered when asked about it Monday night. “We just didn’t win. There’s no excuse. They beat us. That’s all I got.”
Butler went from averaging 28.5 points on 48.3% shooting, 7 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 2.1 steals in the East side of the bracket to 21.6 points on 41.3% shooting, 4.6 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 1 steal in the NBA Finals.
While Butler and the Heat won’t use wear and tear as an excuse, it’s inarguably become a trend and the most apparent reason why Miami continues to run into a ceiling. In 2020, injuries to Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic stripped Butler of his best two teammates in the Finals. Last season, Butler hoisted a go-ahead 3 at the buzzer of Game 7, rather than take a layup to tie the game, in part to avoid overtime. This year, the Heat were overwhelmed by a fresher, bigger, stronger Nuggets squad.
In Game 5, Denver outscored Miami, 60-44, in the paint and grabbed 13 more rebounds. Nikola Jokic, the Finals MVP, capped off his historic postseason run with 28 points, 16 rebounds and four assists.
The Heat went up by as many as 10 points and led for most of the game, but the Nuggets outscored the Heat 50-38 in the second half as Miami sputtered at the end of a seven-week playoff run. Butler, who had just eight points on 2 for 10 shooting through the first three quarters, managed to score 13 straight to give the Heat a chance to extend the series.
But with 45 seconds left and trailing by one, Butler got Jamal Murray on a switch, drove into the lane but picked up his dribble when Jokic came over to help. Butler pivoted and threw an ill-advised pass that was intercepted by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Denver scored to make it a three-point game. With 15 seconds left, Butler heaved a turnaround jumper over Aaron Gordon that missed, ending Miami’s comeback attempt.
The Heat were always deserving of their status as one of the last teams standing, but were undone each time by a talent deficit and small margin for error. This is what the Heat front office must address this offseason to help Butler get his first ring and deliver the organization’s first championship in more than a decade.
According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, Miami’s improbable run could be enough to catch the attention of “a star player or two who have been watching them play with interest.” Windhorst goes on:
“A possible Finals loss will sting for some time, but (Pat) Riley and Heat general manager Andy Elisburg always think long term and always think big. Even as coach Erik Spoelstra squeezed every drop of potential out of the current roster, the Miami front office has been developing a plan for a new one with multiple iterations.”
What that plan looks like and which star players could angle their way to come to Miami is anyone’s guess but, if the plan comes to fruition, it would fulfill the promise Riley made to Butler when Butler first arrived in Miami in 2019 – that the Heat would find him a co-star.
Since joining the Heat, Butler has proven he’s capable of leading an organization to the precipice of a championship. At the same time, Spoelstra and his staff have shown they will always get the most out of their roster. That much cannot be disputed. It’s also apparent what’s missing, and that’s the player to put them over the top.
Unless the Heat want Butler to sit at the podium and answer the same questions at the end of next season, they’ll have to acquire that player this summer.
“You never know what the team is going to look like next year,” Butler said. “I’m just grateful. I learned so much. They taught me so much. I wish I could have got it done for these guys because they definitely deserve it.”