The Eastern Conference finals was supposed to end in Game Six. With the Heat having been shellacked in the previous two matches, just about all quarters figured them to bow to the Celtics on the road. It wasn’t simply that the hosts had a superior roster; more importantly, they found their competitiveness on both ends of the floor compromised by the injury to top dog Jimmy Butler. Inflammation in the right knee compelled him to sit out the second half of Game Three, and although he missed no time from then on, he was clearly far from his finest.
That said, the Heat had no intention of succumbing to conventional wisdom. In fact, they were downright confident of extending the series to a deciding Game Seven. And, yes, in order to do so, they knew they needed Butler to not just be at his level best, but to exceed himself. Never mind that his ailing joint clearly bothered him; not for nothing did he shoot an atrocious seven of 32 in losing outings prior to the do-or-die affair the other day. He didn’t speak when, in the run-up to tip-off, he was enjoined by teammates to put up a half century in points. Then again, he didn’t need to. He was simply bent on letting his playing do the talking for him.
And, wow, did it ever. When the Game Six battlesmoke cleared, the Heat pocketed an unlikely victory on the strength of one of the best playoff performances of all time. Butler delivered, and in spades. For some reason, he had spring in his step — as if he had no ailment at all, and he displayed it from the get-go. To argue that his gutsy performance spurred the rest of the black and red on would be an understatement. Banged-up Kyle Lowry proved steady at the point, while sophomore Max Strus, who had hitherto missed 19 straight three-point attempts, came alive.
As Butler put the finishing touches on his 47-9-8 masterpiece, he remained focused. The Heat had successfully staved off elimination, but there was to be no celebrating — at least not yet. There remains today’s match to take care of, and if there’s any consolation, they’ll be aiming for their second National Basketball Association finals appearance in three years in familiar territory. Even as a beyond-capacity crowd is expected to be at the American Airlines Arena to cheer them on, though, they know their fate will be determined by their acknowledged leader.
Butler moves on feel, so the role he will play today depends on how much leeway the Celtics will give him. No matter the extent of the coverage he will face, however, one thing is clear: He will be leaving nothing in the tank, with the Heat all the better due to his presence.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.