Jimmy Butler, Heat seeking to take a 2-0 lead over Celtics

MIAMI (AP) – Jimmy Butler doesn’t like being top scorer.

No matter that the nickname seems appropriate. He’s averaging nearly 30 points per game this postseason, has hit the 40-point mark three times in his last 10 games after not having such games in the regular season since 2017, and carried the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern about the Boston Celtics finals of the conference.

But say “scorer” to him and he’ll scoff.

“I’ve been an incredible goalscorer at other points in my career and it hasn’t worked out that well for me,” said Butler.

So far this postseason has been going well for Butler and the top-seeded Heat, who will be looking to take a 2-0 lead in the East title series when they host the second-placed Celtics again on Thursday night. It won’t be easy: The Celtics are 0-3 after losses in these playoffs, win these bounceback games with an average of 14.7 points and get two of these wins away from home.

The Celtics are hoping to have defensive player of the year Marcus Smart (sprained metatarsal) back for Game 2 and list him as likely for Thursday night. Boston was also without forward Al Horford (health and safety protocols) for Game 1 – he is doubtful for Game 2. And coach Ime Udoka was ill with a non-COVID disease on Wednesday.

“We have a lot of self-confidence,” said Celtics center Daniel Theis on Wednesday when his team gathered for a film session.

The Heat also have some injury woes: point guard Kyle Lowry will miss his eighth game of the playoffs with a hamstring problem. His replacement, Gabe Vincent – the Heat are 7-0 going into this playoff – is questionable with a hamstring problem of his own, as is fellow Max Strus.

Game 1 was a 118-107 loss for the Celtics Tuesday night, although Boston pointed out after the game that the combined results of the first, second and fourth quarters added up to Celtics 93, heat 79.

However, the annoying third quarter counted.

A 39-14 win by Miami in those 12 minutes – Butler had 17 points in that quarter alone, beating the Celtics – turned the game around and the Heat saw their lead never dwindle to less than nine in the final quarter became.

“Expect us to play better,” said Boston forward Jayson Tatum, who had six turnovers in that crucial quarter. “Expect me to play a lot better.”

In other words, he expects to reach a higher level.

Butler is already there.

He has averaged 29.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 2.3 steals on 53.5% shooting in these playoffs. Since the NBA began tracking each of these stats, no one has finished a postseason averaging as much in each category while shooting as well. And Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has a simple reason why Butler is in this space.

“More attention to detail,” Spoelstra said. “But again, I don’t want to write a long dissertation on this. As competition drives you and the stakes increase, you will increase your level of play. It’s not about trying to get bigger numbers. It’s about doing what is required. And this level is high, this competition, and he feels it and he knows it. He feels it.”

Butler went 17 to 18 from the foul line in Game 1. The only player who made or made more free throws in a game against Boston this season was Kevin Durant – who played 18-20 for Brooklyn in Game 2 of the first game. Round series between the Celtics and Nets.

“He’s comfortable,” Boston’s Jaylen Brown said of Butler. “He is very comfortable at the moment and we need to work better at breaking this rhythm that he is in. That’s it. We have to accept the challenge.”

Butler’s last 40-point game of the regular season came on Jan. 25, 2017 for Chicago — three franchises and more than five years ago. But he’s had five such games in the playoffs since coming to Miami, the first two coming in the bubble two years ago when he carried the Heat to the NBA Finals. The other three were in the last month when he’s back wearing the Heat, though he insists he’s not wearing anyone.

“I don’t care if it’s a big stage or a small stage or who’s watching,” Butler said. “I do what I do for my family, for my people, for my organization and for my teammates. That’s it. No matter if big stage, home or away. I know why I do what I do.”

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