When Jimmy Butler checked back into the game with 8:11 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Heat were trailing the Bucks 98-87 and order has seemingly been restored. Giannis Antetokounmpo was back, and though Butler had been on a heater all night, Milwaukee was about to reestablish control of a series that was starting to get a little weird.
From that point forward, Butler, who just gave us one of the most legendary performances most of us have ever witnessed, outscored Milwaukee 22-16 all by himself, finishing with a Heat playoff franchise record 56 points as Miami stunned the Bucks, 119-114, to take a 3-1 lead in the series.
That word tends to be overused in sports lexicon, but not in this case. This game, this series, is legitimately stunning. This is a Miami team that looked downright dead in the first play-in game against Atlanta. There wasn't a logical basketball person on earth that gave them any chance to hang with the top-seeded Bucks, let alone be on the brink of eliminating them in five.
It speaks to our collective refusal to acknowledge Butler as the top-tier superstar that he continually proves himself to be on the biggest of stages. We've all known he's good, even great, for some time. But I can still remember sitting at Butler's introductory press conference after Miami acquired him in 2019 and listening to Pat Riley call him a top-10 player, and I thought that was crazy. Now, if we're talking who do you want on your team for a playoff series, top-10 seems like an undersell.
And this was not just me who for so long felt decidedly more comfortable throwing Butler the backhanded "two-way star" compliment, which we typically reserve for guys we want to acknowledge as stars but not superstars. Butler is not Paul George or Klay Thompson. Save your "two-way" talk for guys like that, no disrespect.
Indeed, Butler is a superstar of the absolute highest order. When you look at LeBron James or Steph Curry or Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kevin Durant or a healthy Kawhi Leonard and say "as long as that guy's on the floor, his team is a legitimate contender," that's the category in which Butler belongs.
I think about all these great players that we all sit around talking about "he deserves more help" and can't help but wonder why nobody is ever clamoring for Miami to arm Butler with a second star the way we're always trying to get, say, Damian Lillard a contending roster. I'm as big a Lillard fan as there is, and I will happily tell you this right now: You flip Butler and Lillard, and Portland, as constructed, would be a legit contender in the Western Conference.
There are players that require certain circumstances to win at the highest level. Butler isn't one of them. This Miami team is decimated. Tyler Herro is out. Victor Oladipo is out. They lost P.J. Tucker and never replaced him. Kyle Lowry is, most nights, a shell of his All-Star self. Bam Adebayo is NOT a second star. Not at this level. The Miami Heat are running out seven un-drafted players against a Milwaukee team that pretty much everyone had elevated to the status of title favorite.
That Miami is up 3-1, even considering a couple missed games from Giannis, is astonishing. And this is all, every single bit of it, because of Butler.
To even attempt to quantify what makes Butler so great feels like a disservice to his intangible merits. Yes, he's a brick of a defender. An all-time competitor. A physical, old-school scorer with sublime footwork, an endless reservoir of pump fakes and a knack for drawing fouls. A deadly midrange shooter who somehow also morphs into a 3-point assassin in the biggest playoff games and moments. Erik Spoelstra called him "one of the most intelligent basketball players in this association" after Game 4.
It's all of that.
And yet, somehow, it's even more than that.
It's something you can't quite put your finger on yet you know it when you see it, and we've seen plenty of it from Butler over the years. The guy just wins. He wins angles. He wins rebounds. He wins buckets. He wins possessions. He wins games. He wins series.
We know this. We've watched him do this time and again. And yet, even after all he's done in Miami, going to a pair of Eastern Conference finals, going head to head with LeBron in the Finals, if we all truly believed in the gospel of Butler, we wouldn't have been giving this Heat team no chance in this series. We wouldn't do that to a LeBron team. Or a Curry team.
Even now, after that performance, it's hard for me to put Butler in that kind of class. But I'll be damned if he doesn't continue to force me to ask myself why not. I don't think we hesitate to put Giannis in that class, or Durant. Butler is never going to put up the numbers of those guys, but again, in the playoffs, for one game or one series, are you certain that these bigger names have bigger games?
I suppose reasonable minds can disagree on the subjectivity of greatness. But what is absolute fact is that Butler is now one of just two players in history to record at least 55 points on at least 80% true-shooting in a playoff game, joining Charles Barkley. Only three players have scored more than Butler's 56 in a playoff game, period.
For this series, he is averaging 36.5 points on 63% shooting, which includes 53% from 3. This performance is not an exception, either. This is the rule of Playoff Jimmy. This is what he does. Time and again.
All of this said, this series isn't over. The Bucks are more than capable of winning three straight. But right now, the way this thing is laying out, a Miami team that absolutely everybody had left for dead is one win away from potentially playing the Knicks -- who are also up 3-1 -- for a spot in the Eastern Conference finals, where they could face Boston, yet another team Butler gives fits.
This is utterly crazy to say, but the Heat making the Finals this season is suddenly not out of the question. It's unlikely, sure. But there's a chance. Because the simple truth that we've all tried to qualify away for far too long is this: When you have Jimmy Butler, you have a chance against anyone, anytime, anywhere.