Jimmy Butler closes door on mistake-prone Bucks

You could hear a pin drop at Fiserv Forum. Absolute madness has ensued in the first round of these NBA playoffs. 

Gabe Vincent threw the fade pass. Jimmy Butler made the catch. And falling to the hardwood, he did what he’s done all series: willed the basketball into the bucket, this time forcing the Bucks into overtime. 

The moment that extra period was forced, any remaining inkling of doubt regarding which was the tougher team in this series went out the window, and the Heat made history.

Becoming just the sixth No. 8 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in the first round of the NBA playoffs and the first since the 2012 Philadelphia 76ers, the Heat came back from 16 down after three quarters to force the extra period and beat the Bucks, 128-126, to take the first-round series 4-1. With the victory, Miami advances to meet the Knicks — yes, the Knicks! — for a trip to the Eastern Conference finals.

What is going on?

Well, what went down on Wednesday was yet another night where Butler showed the NBA world that he is one of the best in The Association. He might deny it, but there is a Playoff Jimmy, and he is one bad man. On the flip side, the Bucks capped off back-to-back choke jobs, with Grayson Allen running out of time on the game’s final possession serving as a fitting way to end the season — more on this later. 

Butler scored 26 of his game-high 42 points after halftime, shooting 17-of-33 from the floor while posting eight rebounds and four assists in the process. All 14 of his fourth quarter points came in the final 4:39 of regulation. That’s the downright scary thing about this eighth-seeded Miami team: If it’s close late, they’ve got the most dangerous player in the league at the moment. You have to put the Heat away before that point, because anything inside single-digits is susceptible of turning to dust with Butler on the other side. 

“We were resilient. We were down late, and it seemed to be that way a lot during this series,” Butler told NBA TV postgame. “We stayed with it though, getting some stops and making huge buckets. That was it.” 

Just look at Wednesday night, when it looked like Milwaukee had the game in the bag. The Bucks led 108-99 with less than five minutes on the clock. This franchise won an NBA championship two years ago. That pedigree was gone from them on Wednesday. Butler demolished their remaining hopes with a jumper and layup to cut it down to five. Milwaukee took momentum right back with a Wesley Matthews 3 with 3:18 left. At that point, it was 111-103. But this series defied logic at times because Butler simply refused to be denied and Milwaukee’s game plan on him defensively was … not good. Butler proceeded to reel off eight points in 67 seconds to tie it up. 

“My teammates need me to be that way right now,” Butler said. “I’m going to continue to be that way right now. It could be 40. It could be 50. It could be zero points and 12 assists. I’ve got to be able to do it all.” 

As great as he was, though, Butler and the Heat’s furious comeback effort looked like it was going to get denied. If this doesn’t sum up how shocking Wednesday’s result was in Milwaukee, nothing does: The Bucks led 117-113 with 14 seconds left in regulation. 

But Vincent — who served as an unlikely sidekick to Butler with just his eighth 20-plus point game of the season to go along with six assists — drilled a triple to keep Miami alive with only eight seconds left. After a wild sequence that saw Miami win a challenge on a Kyle Lowry phantom foul call, an ensuing jump ball that was saved by Khris Middleton for Milwaukee, and Jrue Holiday making just one of two from the line, it gave the Heat the chance that they took to force five more minutes. 

For Milwaukee, that marked a trip straight to hell. Losing the 14-point fourth quarter lead after in Miami on Monday has nothing on Wednesday, because the latest case was on their home floor and facing elimination. Sure, the Heat’s defense had something to do with it, but the Bucks shot 3-for-17 from the floor in the final quarter. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo shot 1-for-9 in the final 12 minutes of regulation. While he scored 38 points to go along with 20 rebounds, the same main flaw that’s impacted Antetokounmpo before when the spotlight’s been on him arose again on Wednesday: free-throw shooting. 

When in doubt, Miami hacked him, and it worked. Antetokounmpo shot 10-for-23 from the stripe. His performance in those key free-throw situations, a late foul sending Max Strus to the free throw line to extend the Miami lead to four, and getting outdone by Butler on his home floor to end the season will eat at one the league’s top superstars in the months to come. Another missing link for Milwaukee in the late goings: Middleton. After scoring 28 points in the first three quarters, he finished with just five in the game’s final 17 minutes.  

More than anything, Mike Budenholzer deserves serious blame for the mismanagement of the lead in the last two games of the series, particularly on Wednesday. For Butler to hit the game-tying shot with 0.5 seconds left and for the Bucks to not use their last timeout to advance the ball and have a shot to win it, is downright inexplicable. Additionally, on that Butler play, Antetokounmpo was not guarding the basket, but instead was on Vincent, the inbounder. 

To choke away a 16-point lead after three quarters with the caliber of talent and playoff experience Milwaukee has? Budenholzer is in the face of criticism and rightly so. 

But the story is Butler, who will lead Miami into a meeting with a Knicks team that rolled by Cleveland in five games, winning a road closeout Game 5 as well on Wednesday. 

New York might have a balanced team and a defense playing lights out, but the Heat will have the best player on the floor. 

Butler became the first Heat player in franchise history to post back-to-back 40-plus-point performances in the playoffs. He averaged a cool 37.6 points per game in the series on 60% from the floor and 44% from 3. 

And most impressive, the 33-year-old just managed to score 98 points in the last 48 hours to close out a No. 1 seed. 

Butler is showing that he didn’t just capture lightning in a bottle in the NBA bubble three years ago when he led the Heat to the NBA Finals. He lives for this moment, and is backing everything up with a collective masterpiece. 

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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