NEW YORK -- At times in the 2023 playoffs, Jimmy Butler has appeared to be superhuman. In six games, the Miami Heat star has averaged a league-best 35.5 points on 66.2 percent true shooting, plus 6.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists.
Butler is human, though, which means, as inconvenient as it may be, his ankles are made of human stuff. He was able to stay on the floor after a nasty sprain with about five minutes left in Game 1 of Miami's second-round series against the New York Knicks on Sunday, but he didn't do much down the stretch. His status for Game 2 on Tuesday is unclear.
"He's doing treatment round the clock," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said Monday at a hotel in Midtown Manhattan. "Probably won't have any update until before the game."
The Heat took the series opener thanks largely to a crunch-time performance that belongs in Kyle Lowry's personal pantheon. Miami got three leak-out buckets on Kevin Love outlet passes in the third quarter, a timely 3 from Gabe Vincent in the fourth and just about the best results it could have hoped for from its halftime adjustment on defense. It was a one-possession game when Butler got hurt, though, and the Knicks could have counters ready (or simply shoot better than 20.6 percent from 3-point range).
"We know our margin for error is not huge," Spoelstra said.
If Butler doesn't play -- or is hampered by the injury -- then that margin is microscopic. And his ankle isn't even the only one that represents a huge variable in this series. Julius Randle, New York's All-Star forward, missed Game 1 with a sprain of his own. Spoelstra said the Heat have prepped for "all the different scenarios," and that all their injuries (Tyler Herro broke his hand and Victor Oladipo tore his patellar tendon in the first round) have "kept us on edge," in a good way.
"It's just staying in the moment of what the situation is," Lowry said Monday. "Julius Randle may play. Different coverages, different matchups. They may play different guys more, another guy less, who knows. So for us, we watched the film for what we can do better as a team."
Lowry, Vincent and Bam Adebayo will need to shoulder more of the scoring load if Butler is out. His potential absence, though, looms over every storyline heading into Game 2. The same is true of Randle's return.
Can the Heat limit Brunson again?
Jalen Brunson overstated it when he said he was "horrific" on Sunday, but Miami did hold him to a relatively inefficient 25 points on 11-for-23 shooting (0-for-7 from deep) and force him into five turnovers. Butler and Caleb Martin took turns as Brunson's primary defender; if Spoelstra wants to continue putting big wings on him, then either Martin's minutes will increase or Haywood Highsmith will get a shot if Butler is out.
"You just gotta stay disciplined," Martin said. "He's such a crafty guy. He's obviously very intelligent with his footwork and manipulates guys off angles and off his body. So you gotta really stay disciplined and understand he's gonna make shots. He's gonna make tough ones, and you can't get discouraged off that. You gotta continue to come back the next possession and try to get another stop."
After the Knicks scored 40 points in the paint in the first half, Miami made it its mission to stop Brunson from getting in there. Like New York itself did to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round, the Heat left the Knicks' role players open on the perimeter, even helping off the strong side, in order to put bodies in between Brunson and the basket.
Protecting the paint is part of Miami's defensive identity, but this is extreme:
If Randle plays, and particularly if he makes a couple of catch-and-shoot 3s -- he shot 34.3 percent in the regular season but only 8 for 34 (23.5 percent) in the first round -- maybe Brunson will have a bit more room to operate. Miami is aware, however, that Brunson is capable of putting up points with less than ideal spacing. If he had made a couple of pull-up 3s in Game 1, the outcome could have been different.
"Jalen's literally an All-NBA type player," Lowry said. "He's changed their team around. He's unbelievably good. He's only going to get better. A guy like him can go off for 40, he can go off for a triple-double, he can do everything. So we just gotta make sure we stay focused on trying to make his looks tough, make his job a little bit harder. He's going to get his. We just gotta make sure we're just trying to make it tough on him."
At 5 p.m. on Monday, the Knicks introduced another potentially game-changing variable: Not only is Randle questionable for Game 2, so is Brunson. Brunson has a sore right ankle, the team announced.
Can New York solve the math problem?
The Knicks' shooting struggles on Sunday were not new: They shot a miserable 28.2 percent from 3-point range in the first round and their volume was down considerably compared to the regular season. If they can't fix this, Miami has no reason to change how it is defending Brunson.
Part of the problem is Josh Hart, who does all sorts of wonderful things for New York but has been a reluctant spot-up shooter for most of his career. Hart played 43 minutes in the opener, as coach Tom Thibodeau elected to match his minutes with Butler's, and missed all four of his 3-point attempts. Barrett played 40 minutes and went 1 for 5.
Quentin Grimes, who had been starting on the wing before injuring his shoulder in Game 3 against Cleveland, played 10 minutes off the bench. Grimes made 40 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s in the regular season, and, given the Knicks' spacing issues, there would be a good argument for putting him back in the starting lineup even if Butler hadn't gotten hurt. If they don't even need the stronger Hart to defend Butler, then finding Grimes more minutes is a no-brainer.
It is difficult to overstate just how big of a factor the spacing is for New York. Look at how little attention Miami plays to Hart on this possession:
From the Knicks' perspective, the scariest thing about Game 1 is the 3-point disparity could have been much worse. The Heat made six more 3s than they did, but only shot 33.3 percent as a team and sharpshooter Duncan Robinson missed all five that he took.
"We really didn't play that well at all yesterday, to be honest with you," Miami wing Max Strus said.
If the Heat are without Butler, they'll need to get up more 3s. They'll have a harder time generating 3s by drawing two defenders to the ball and making the defense scramble, but they can lean into Adebayo's dribble-handoff game, run Strus and Robinson off stagger screens, encourage Lowry and Vincent to let it fly off the dribble and try to find pick-and-pop opportunities for Love.
"We haven't gotten to the point, at least in this series yet, up one game, to where shots are falling, we get into [one of] those grooves as a team where guys are knocking down shots," Martin said. "We know a game like that is coming for us, too, and that'll make things obviously easier."
Can the Knicks be bullies on the boards?
New York won the rebounding battle in the opener -- it grabbed 32.7 percent of its misses, the Heat grabbed 26.9 percent of theirs -- but it didn't dominate the boards the way it did against the Cavs. The Knicks scored 11 second chance points, their lowest total of the playoffs, and the Heat scored seven.
This is not just a matter of Adebayo, who grabbed three offensive boards, stepping up to the challenge against Mitchell Robinson. Butler grabbed four offensive rebounds, and Miami's guards and wings were willing to mix it up.
One question: If Miami plays smaller without Butler, will it suffer on the glass?
A more important question: If Randle returns, will Adebayo guard him? If so, Adebayo will spend more time on the perimeter, rather than in the paint, which could hurt the Heat on the glass.
"It definitely changes things," Spoelstra said, coyly. "Randle's a great basketball player, so we'll see. Rebounding and finishing our defense is a big part of this series as well. We're fully aware of that."
Keep an eye on Love. He's always been an excellent rebounder, and if the Heat can take advantage of his outlet passes again, New York will have to think twice about crashing the offensive glass.