MIAMI — Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau ran out of superlatives when asked about Miami’s Jimmy Butler ahead of Game 3.
Thibodeau marveled at Butler’s pick-and-roll play, how he handles the offense, gets to the free-throw line, displays, his shooting awareness and body position.
“He’s smart on the ball, so you try to make a guy like him work for his points,” Thibs said.
Too bad his team didn’t get the message.
More: Heat, Lakers head home, seek 2-1 lead over Knicks, Warriors
More: Bucks fire coach Mike Budenholzer after disappointing first-round playoff loss
More: Is Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat ahead of Tom Thibodeau of the New York Knicks?
Game 3 was over the minute the Heat announced that the best player in the playoffs this year not named Devin Booker had been cleared after suffering an ankle injury late in Game 1.
Butler put his stamp on this game from the first possession, bouncing off Julius Randle’s weak fadeaway, leading the break and knocking down a short turnover until he came off the bench to nail a 14-footer midway through the fourth quarter after the Knicks got inside. 14.
And in between, he entertained the crowd, dancing and spinning the ball on his finger like a globetrotter as officials dealt with an altercation between Miami’s Cody Zeller and Knicks’ Randle and Isaiah Hartenstein at the end of the third quarter better described as dust than hubbub. , especially with the history of these teams.
Butler’s numbers were modest by his standards in Miami’s 105-86 win that gave him a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal. But his imprint set the tone.
“I’m comfortable, I’m confident, I work extremely hard on my craft,” Butler said.
Butler finished with a game-high 28 points in 36 minutes, certainly well below his 35.5-point playoff average and said he was “definitely out of rhythm,” shooting 9 of 21.
But as he left the field and walked down the hall to the Heat’s locker room, he could be heard shouting, “The best player in the world is back.”
He was joking…we think.
And it didn’t matter that the best player in Heat playoff history — yes, better than LeBron, Wade, Zo, Hardaway, all of them — was hampered in the third quarter by an apparent thigh injury after sliding into the post. . Spoelstra said Butler needed about three plays to shake him off and no ice was needed after the game.
Still, a lame and sick Jimmy Butler is the best player on the court.
“He’s on his way right now, he’s playing at an all-time high,” Heat center Bam Adebayo said.
Miami never trailed and its lead never dipped below double digits after the first 22 seconds of the second quarter. It was mostly thanks to an uninspired effort from the Knicks, who so far prove their first-round victory was the result of playing against a fraudulent Cavaliers team.
The mystery surrounding Butler’s ankle was really no mystery at all. The decision to seat Butler for Game 2 was essentially made when the Heat left the floor at Madison Square Garden last Sunday with a 1-0 series lead.
The safe game was to rest Butler. The only question was, if the Heat had lost Game 1, would Butler have played Game 2, and not Butler would play Game 3 after almost a full week off? It was obvious.
“A lot of recovery and making sure I could move was necessary,” Butler said.
Butler showed early on why he is and will be the difference in this series and it could end with the Knicks’ only victory coming in the game. Butler was the highest paid cheerleader in the arena.
The most heartening part for the Heat Saturday is that it wasn’t even “Playoff Jimmy” at his playoff best and the lead was still 22 points with about eight minutes left, signaling the start of a time extended trash can.
His presence alone energized the Kaseya Center and Butler ensured that transplanted New Yorkers couldn’t start a “Let’s Go Knicks” chant. A back jumper with Jalen Brunson coming in as a double team. A tip on a miss from Bam Adebayo. A dunk on a steal and an assist from Gabe Vincent.
And that was not all. A pair of blocks on an RJ Barrett floater and a Josh Hart layup…all in the first quarter. And when the Heat felt a bit threatened late in the fourth quarter, Butler, who had sat out most of the quarter, came off the bench to ease the angst.
“You can’t put an analysis on it,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Butler’s impact. “It’s just your team’s overall confidence level that you can always give them the ball and know we’ll get something effective and consistent.”
In a sense, this streak started in Game 3. The Heat won Game 1 with Randle nursing a sore ankle and the Knicks won Game 2 with Butler wearing his sleeveless t-shirt on the Heat bench.
Now, this series has finally come to a point where everyone on the active roster (the Heat entered with Tyler Herro out for the rest of the playoffs) was available.
And it wasn’t good for the Knicks.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Jimmy Butler’s hot start, everything the Heat needed to take the series lead against the Knicks