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Why Jimmy Butler and the Heat can bring down the top-seeded Bucks

Milwaukee Bucks' Wesley Matthews defends as Miami Heat's Jimmy Butler handles the ball.
Milwaukee’s Wesley Matthews defends as Miami’s Jimmy Butler handles the ball in the second half of Monday’s game.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Jimmy Butler is a chronic truth-teller, someone with no time for tact. And the NBA playoffs, especially when the league’s winningest team is on the other end of the court, isn’t a time to worry much about bedside manner.

It’s why as Game 1 of the Heat’s second-round series with the Bucks wound down, Butler delivered some bad news — he was done letting anyone else shoot.

“Say what you will, but I told my teammates I probably wasn’t going to pass the ball,” Butler said with signature frankness. “I made a couple of shots, and they said, ‘It’s fine with me.’”

Butler scored 15 of his 40 points in the final six minutes of Monday’s game against the top-seeded Bucks in a series the Heat very much have a chance of winning.

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Butler heard it from his teammates Monday — win the game, they all told him. Although some nights that means lockdown defense and others it means playmaking, Monday it meant Jimmy Buckets putting the ball in the hoop. Next time, it might be something else.

“I’m telling you, we’ve got a lot of guys, a lot of guys,” Butler said. “And guys are so comfortable, confident. We’re OK.”

Brandon Ingram, one of the key players in the trade that netted the Lakers All-Star forward Anthony Davis, was selected the NBA’s most improved player on Monday.

Watching Butler cut up one of the best defenses in the NBA says more about the three franchises that decided they’d be better off without him. Only one of those teams — Philadelphia — has made the playoffs since he left, and the 76ers just fired coach Brett Brown after getting swept by Boston.

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Miami has provided Butler with things that Chicago, Minnesota and Philadelphia could not. There is no question as to the team’s engine, no push-and-pull with another superstar. There are no newbie stars bristling over his style. There’s no chaos.The Heat’s culture and stability may be second only to what Gregg Popovich has created in San Antonio.

With the Heat, Butler has meshed well with two-way big man Bam Adebayo. He’s been a strong pairing with sharp-shooter Duncan Robinson and rookie gunner Tyler Herro. And with veteran point guard Goran Dragic healthy and playing well, Butler has help — without having competition as the team’s leader.

“It’s a star’s league. That’s why we sought him out so aggressively,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He just fits everything about us, our fabric and who we are. And that’s make or miss. Here, everybody feels comfortable when he’s making those decisions.”

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Butler, as much as anyone, has looked comfortable inside the NBA bubble. He’s had no problems manufacturing news — his $20-a-cup pop-up French press coffee shop had his agent fielding calls from coffee brands offering equity. Energy? He’s brewing that for free.

Before the game Monday, cameras captured Butler scoring and yelling at the virtual fans projected onto screens. During the fourth quarter after one of his buckets, Butler stared down Milwaukee’s home crowd, which in the bubble consists of a handful of staffers and family members at the game.

“I love to play this game. Right now, you’ve really got to bring your energy,” Butler said. “I think my teammates do a great job of hyping me up anyways. We do a great job of hyping each other up.”

Monday was Butler’s 7-year-old cousin’s birthday — Butler said that inspired him. For a player who was briefly homeless as a teen, who had to earn a spot in big-time college basketball by starting at a junior college, and who had to carve out a career for himself after being the last pick of the first round of the 2011 draft, finding motivation doesn’t require sonar.

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Pizza is a rare luxury inside the NBA’s bubble, so the Lakers took Sunday night to treat their traveling party to some.

There’s little doubt within the Miami locker room that they’ll see a more aggressive Giannis Antetokounmpo in Game 2 on Wednesday night. Before Game 1, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer noted there were similarities between this Heat team and last year’s Raptors, a hard-nosed, star-driven team that bounced the Bucks in the conference finals.

But Monday, the Heat affirmed that they were as ready as anyone to leave the bubble with the big trophy.

“If we play basketball the right way, don’t turn the ball over, guard the way we’re supposed to guard, we can win any game. We can compete with anybody,” Butler said.

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It won’t always take 40 points from Butler to do it, and he knows it. He’s ready for whatever is needed, with his identity, his team and the perfect culture all intertwined.

“It’s not about just scoring. It’s about guarding. It’s about making the right play, getting the 50-50 ball. That’s all part of winning the game,” Butler said. “I feel like I took it up a level in the fourth quarter. If that needs to happen every game, I’ve got to be able to do it. But we have so many guys capable of doing it for us.”


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