Butler's Game-Winner That Wasn't
The bruised, battered, and exhausted Heat were on the verge of completing an incredible comeback against an almost equally bruised, battered, and exhausted Celtics squad. After nearly erasing a deficit that stood at 13 with just three minutes and change remaining, the Heat stood poised for a historic comeback. Bam forced a miss from Boston’s Marcus Smart, and Jimmy Butler got the rebound with just 22 seconds on the clock.
He ran out in transition and quickly approached the three-point line with only the bigger Al Horford between him and the basket. Jimmy surveyed the court, slowed down, and shot a leaning, wide-open three to try and take the lead with 15 seconds left. His tired legs, which played a combined 94 minutes over 72 hours on a bad knee, betrayed him: the shot fell short.
Boston held on for an epic Game 7 win. They’ll face the Warriors in the NBA Finals starting Thursday.
As soon as Butler’s shot caromed off the rim, criticism and defense of Jimmy’s shot selection started pouring in. Even the TV announcers, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson, disagreed on whether it was a bad shot.
Today, as Boston preps for Golden State and Miami preps for vacation, we’ll break down the situation to determine if Jimmy’s attempt was the right call.
Fatigue must have played a factor in Jimmy’s decision. As I mentioned above, he had played almost all of Game 6 and hadn’t sat a minute in Game 7. The rest of the team was barely better — and the Celtics, too, were riding their starters hard. Both teams were noticeably losing steam by the end. Jimmy may have decided that he didn’t have enough left in the tank for a potential overtime situation.
Boston had led the game from the tip. Some will say the Heat had momentum and should have fought for overtime. However, momentum has been disproven many times over the years — once a game gets to overtime, it’s a coinflip no matter what the fourth-quarter narrative is. The Heat had been demonstrably worse than Boston for much of the game, and their odds were 50/50 at best.
There’s also this strange assumption that Jimmy Butler would’ve been able to draw a foul on Horford for an and-one, or at least two free throws. This seems unlikely to me. The refs had been letting a lot of physical play go, and zebras typically swallow their whistles at the end of games like this. Additionally, Horford is superb at contesting shots without fouling — he averaged just 2.7 fouls per 100 plays in the regular season, in the 92nd percentile for big men. Although Horford had four fouls in Game 7, he had only accumulated nine total fouls in the other six games.
Coach Spoelstra had clearly emphasized that the Heat needed to race out on every missed Boston shot, but Horford had been kryptonite to many Heat attempts to get out in transition. I lost count of the number of times that Bam Adebayo was given the ball on the fast break, ran out ahead of everyone to attack the basket… then had to turn back after seeing Al Horford had already gotten downcourt and was waiting at the nail, arms splayed like a praying mantis. The Heat never figured out how to attack Horford in transition, and Al’s amazing ability to always be the first one back on defense was the key to this game.
Ok, so if a foul was unlikely, what else might’ve happened?
As a ballhandler, Jimmy Butler scored approximately 1.31 points per transition possession, per Synergy Sports. That is an excellent number, in the top 5% of all NBA players. Horford’s excellent defense would likely diminish this number somewhat, however.
Butler shot a mediocre 34% from deep in the playoffs. That’s 1.02 points per possession. But not all threes are created equal, and transition three-point attempts are usually the easiest and least-guarded. A since-deleted tweet from prominent NBA analyst Haralabos Voulgaris stated that Butler shot a superb 47% on threes in transition this season on a small sample size, which would be 1.41 points per possession! This data is not verifiable with publicly available statistics, but I asked ESPN’s Kevin Pelton for help, and he came through:
Long threes are also more likely to create offensive rebounds than transition layups, so there was always the chance a lucky bounce would’ve given the Heat another shot. At the least, the expected value of the three compared to the drive was likely similar.
But there’s more to it than just that. Let’s say Butler had gotten to the basket and scored. Then it’s a tie game, with roughly fifteen seconds left. That gives Boston time to wait for the last shot and run a play. If Boston hits, they’ll win, and if they miss… they still go to overtime, where the Celtics have, at worst, a 50% chance of winning.
If Jimmy’s three had dropped, the Celtics would’ve been forced to attack early, because if they had missed their own go-ahead shot, Boston would have wanted to foul. Even if the Celtics go back ahead, Miami still would likely have a few seconds to get off another game-winning shot attempt.
So the game situation suggests taking the open three was wise. The percentages say the open three was at least a wash and likely the superior option. But the most basic reason to believe in the three-pointer is that Jimmy felt good about shooting it.
After carrying the entire offense single-handedly, Jimmy Butler deserved the benefit of the doubt to take an open shot. He had also hit almost the same shot earlier in the game:
“My thought process was, ‘go for the win,’ which I did,” Butler said after the game.
The Heat trusted their biggest star to carry them to the finish despite tough odds, and Jimmy nearly did it just like he has in innumerable contests before. Unfortunately for Miami, and fortunately for Boston, he came up six inches short of a miracle.