JIMMY BUTLER STARTED smirking before the question was even done being asked. He shook his head as he answered with a smile on his face.
After dropping a franchise playoff record 56 points to lead the 8-seed Miami Heat to a Game 4 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, the team with the best record in the NBA in the regular season, was Butler finally ready to admit that the “Playoff Jimmy” phenomenon was real?
“It’s not a thing,” the 33-year-old Heat star insisted. “It’s not. I just be hooping.”
Jimmy Butler’s response to the nickname, ‘Playoff Jimmy’ 😂
“It’s not a thing … I just be hooping.”
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) April 25, 2023
Butler might not believe in “Playoff Jimmy” — the extra level he takes his game to when the calendar turns to April, May and June, but it’s getting harder and harder to believe that he “just be hooping.”
Butler, who averaged 22.9 points in the regular season, has posted an incredible 31.9 per game in the playoffs, second-highest among any player still alive in the postseason. And his Heat are one win away from becoming the second 8-seed ever to reach the conference finals, thanks in large part to the heroics of Butler, who has annually raised his game as well as any player in the NBA.
“It’s an amazing thing to watch,” Heat forward Kevin Love told ESPN. “He leads us. He sets the tone for us every single night and it’s just a beautiful thing to be a part of.”
ONE MONTH AGO, “Playoff Jimmy” was almost done before he got a chance to get started. The Heat found themselves in the NBA play-in tournament as the No. 7 seed but lost the first game to the Atlanta Hawks — sending the Hawks to a first-round series against the second-seeded Boston Celtics, and sending Miami to a win-or-go-home game against the Chicago Bulls — the team that drafted Butler 11 years ago.
The Heat trailed 68-67 entering the fourth quarter, but Butler scored 13 of his 31 points in the final 12 minutes to secure the first-round matchup with the Bucks, and since then “Playoff Jimmy” has been on full display.
After averaging 30 points in the first three games of the first round, Butler posted a Game 4 for the history books. His 56 points were tied for the fourth-most ever in a playoff game — only Michael Jordan, Elgin Baylor and Donovan Mitchell have scored more. According to ESPN Stats & Information, his 56 points were the most in a 15-point comeback victory since Jordan also had 56 in a game against the Heat in the first round in 1992.
Butler followed that up with 42 points in a closeout victory over the Bucks to give the Heat a 4-1 series win and make them just the sixth 8-seed to beat a No. 1 in the NBA playoffs. In doing so, Butler became the fifth player in NBA postseason history to score 98 points or more in a two-game span, the first since Jordan did it in 1993. It was the most points anyone had scored in the final two games of a playoff series in NBA history.
“This is the Jimmy everybody always waits for at the end of the year,” Heat big man Bam Adebayo said. “Y’all see sparks of it during the regular season and he’s one of those players in the playoffs, he can turn it on.”
Butler didn’t always turn into “Playoff Jimmy.” In his first playoff experience as a rookie for the 2012 Bulls, he played a total of four minutes across three games and didn’t take a single shot. But he’s become one of six players in NBA history to play at least 100 playoff games and average more points, rebounds and assists and shoot better in the playoffs than in the regular season, along with Hakeem Olajuwon, James Worthy, Ben Wallace, Robert Horry and Bryon Russell. “Big Game James” and “Big Shot Bob” embraced their playoff-driven nicknames.
Of those six, only Russell and Butler also increased their blocks per game and steals per game. However, they share another distinction: they’re the only two of that group of six without a title. Russell’s Jazz lost in the Finals in 1997 and 1998, while Butler’s Heat lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the bubble in 2020.
In Game 3 of that Finals series, Butler went off for 40 points, one of eight 40-point playoff games in his career (in 105 total playoff games). He has scored 40 just eight times in 754 regular-season games. Among individuals with at least five career 40-point games, he is one of two players (along with Jamal Murray) who has at least half of his 40-point games in the postseason.
In fact, five of Butler’s 10 highest-scoring games have come in the playoffs. Butler is one of four players to do that in NBA history, along with Murray, Kawhi Leonard and Jerome James.
“I just know how good of a basketball player he is,” Heat teammate Udonis Haslem said. “I just know how much of a competitor he is. And the playoffs is when the stakes are the highest and he rises to the occasion.”
Butler had scored at least 25 points in every game of this year’s playoffs prior to a 19-point performance in Wednesday night’s Game 5 loss to the Knicks. It was the longest streak of consecutive 25-point games in his career, regular season or playoffs. And while Butler insists he doesn’t need to be a scorer for the Heat to win — saying after Game 5, it “doesn’t matter if I score 40 or 50 or 19 or 9, we always have enough to win” — his teammates know he sets the tone.
“When Jimmy comes out aggressive, it’s a different team,” Heat guard Kyle Lowry said. “It’s a different mentality. We play off of him and that’s what a leader does. That’s what a franchise player does. That’s what a megastar does.”
Throughout these playoffs, Butler is averaging 31.8 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.9 steals per game while shooting 55.1% from the field and 39.4% from deep. In the regular season, in 64 games, Butler put up 22.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.8 steals per game on 53.9% shooting and 35.0% from 3-point range.
The 3-point shooting in particular stands out. Over the past four seasons, Butler has shot 26.6% from 3-point range in the regular season on 1.9 attempts per game. In the playoffs in the past four seasons, Butler is shooting 34.6% from deep on 3.2 attempts a game.
“I can shoot the ball whenever I want,” Butler said after his 56-point performance. “I know I can make it. I’m not worried. And even if you back up off of me. If I want to get into the paint, I’ll still get into the paint. If I still want to shoot a midrange jump shot. I think that’s part of just picking your spots and if you get to where you want to get to, you can do whatever you want to do.”
LOVE HAS SEEN his fair share of epic playoff performances up close. As a part of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Finals run from 2015 to 2018, Love had a front row seat for LeBron James performances throughout that stretch as well as what Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were doing on the other side for the Golden State Warriors.
When asked what it’s like to watch Butler step his game up to another level in the playoffs, Love went back to those years.
“Watching reminds me of another player that I’ve played with for several years,” Love said, alluding to James, who also spent time in the Heat locker room, leading Miami to four consecutive Finals appearances from 2011 to 2014.
And while scoring is a big part of the “Playoff Jimmy” mystique, there’s more to it than just pouring in points.
“He is the best closer in the game in my opinion,” Love said.
The numbers back Love up. During his regular-season career, Butler has averaged 4.9 points in the fourth quarter. In the playoffs, that jumps to 6.1 points in the fourth quarter. Since 1996-97 (the play-by-play era) only Dirk Nowitzki has seen a bigger postseason jump in fourth-quarter scoring.
“He’s somebody who’s special, brings it every single night, sets the tone for us,” Love said. “And he does it in different ways. When the ball is in his hand, whether you come and double or not, he’s going to make a play, we’re going to get an open shot.
“You almost have to pick your poison with him. But I think what’s overlooked about Jimmy is he’s extremely unselfish so while he is getting his buckets and he steps his game up when it comes to scoring in the playoffs, he is certainly passing the ball, finding us in different ways.”
“Watching [Jimmy Butler] reminds me of another player that I’ve played with for several years.”
Kevin Love, alluding to LeBron James
And of course with Butler, there’s the defense. That was on full display in Monday’s Game 4 against the Knicks.
In the second quarter, Knicks guard Quentin Grimes drove to his left and got past Heat guard Max Strus on his way to the basket with one hesitation dribble. He took one more strong dribble and took off as soon as his left foot hit the paint. Grimes rose up with his right hand to try to throw down a thunderous slam.
The only problem was Butler was waiting at the goal. Butler rose up, extended his right hand and deflected Grimes’ attempt as it went towards the rim.
“I got lucky,” Butler said. “I normally don’t block shots like that. I go for the strip.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Butler has also helped the Heat get ahead in the series because of the things that aren’t jumping out on the stat sheet.
“Jimmy thrives on those plays in between and thrives in just making winning plays and putting his fingerprints on the game,” he said.
But is thriving in the postseason enough to prove the existence of “Playoff Jimmy?” As the Heat’s OG, Haslem gets the last word.
“He says there’s no such thing, so since he says there’s no such thing, I’m going with what Jimmy go with,” he said. “There’s no such thing.”
ESPN’s Jamal Collier contributed to this story.