It was just last week that I wrote, with a hint of boredom, that the NBA Playoffs were thus far progressing mostly as expected. What a difference a few days makes. On Monday night the Miami Heat brusquely snatched Game 4 in its first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, 119–114, taking a commanding (and shocking) 3–1 lead. The Bucks are the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and finished the season with the best record in basketball. They entered the Playoffs as the betting favorite to win their second championship in three years. Now they are one loss away from going home in the first round.
Since the first round moved to a best-of-seven format in 2003, only one team has managed to pull off an 8-over-1 upset: the storied “We Believe” Golden State Warriors in 2007. If the Heat manages to close this series out, it will be one of the great upsets in NBA history and will throw the entire landscape of the playoffs into disarray. Fans often (and fairly) complain about how long the NBA Playoffs take, but it’s remarkable how quickly things can happen. Even when the Bucks fell into a surprising 2–1 hole after losing superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo to a back injury for Games 2 and 3, it seemed as if barely anyone batted an eye. Monday night’s result, on the other hand, which came with Antetokounmpo playing 38 minutes and recording a triple-double, was like a thunderbolt, particularly as the Bucks coughed up a 12-point lead in the final six minutes. (Miami closed the game on a torrid 30–13 run.) Milwaukee could, still, absolutely win three straight games against Miami, a less talented team by any objective measure. But this is the sort of haymaker loss that even very, very good teams often struggle to come back from.
At the center of it all, as is so often the case this time of year, is Heat forward Jimmy Butler. In Game 4, Butler exploded for a franchise playoff-record 56 points, no small accomplishment for an organization that over the years has employed Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O’Neal, and LeBron James. Despite never having won a championship, Butler is by now indisputably one of the greatest postseason performers of his generation and an absolute terror to play against. He is averaging 36.5 points per game in this series and is now one win away from what might be the most impressive achievement of an already illustrious career.
It’s easy to label Butler a throwback type of basketball player, but it’s also inaccurate, because it implies that there was ever a time when Jimmy Butler would have been anything less than extraordinary. I don’t know if there is another NBA star whose greatness has been quite so defined by sheer will. Butler has never been a top-tier athlete, and has spent much of his career lining up against bigger players at forward. In an era defined by floor-spacing wings, he mostly treats the 3-point shot as if it’s an imposition, averaging an anemic 1.6 attempts per game this past season. But he has an absolute genius for playing harder than anyone else: He is a tenacious defender, an outstanding rebounder for his size, and a virtuoso at drawing and scoring through contact. (Monday night he went 15 for 18 from the foul line; through the first four games of the series, he is averaging nearly 10 free-throw attempts per game.)
It is through this exceptional ability to outwork his opponents that Butler built his playoff legend. He has an almost superhuman knack for becoming the best player in most playoff series he plays in, despite almost never being the flashiest or the most naturally gifted. Butler playing against your team in the playoffs is a uniquely nightmarish experience: Take it from me, a Celtics fan, a team that Butler has tormented going back to his days with the Chicago Bulls. Just last season Butler dragged a battered and ragged Heat team to a seventh game against Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals, and came within a few inches of possibly beating them. Butler scored 35 points in that Game 7, and the only reason the Heat was even there was because he’d just scored 47 in a Game 6 masterpiece to keep its season alive.
Butler is also a world-class pain in the ass, having worn out his welcome at three previous NBA stops before finding a (mostly) happy home in Miami. (Just last season, Butler and Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra had to be physically separated during a timeout.) While he mostly eschews the podium-grabbing antics of more extroverted heels, such as Draymond Green and Dillon Brooks, Butler is a shit-stirring irritant of the first order. His monomaniacal brand of anti-charisma is deeply unpleasant, but it also makes him far more compelling than many of his more anodyne and pedigreed peers. My favorite unintentionally hilarious ad campaign of the past several years is Butler’s spots for Michelob Ultra, which seem to presume that being stuck on a plane with Jimmy Butler while he drinks terrible beer and warbles Hootie and the Blowfish songs is anyone’s idea of a good time.
On paper, the Heat is probably the weakest team remaining in this year’s playoff field. The Heat finished the regular season at seventh place in the East, managed to lose their first play-in game to the Atlanta Hawks, then beat Chicago in their 84th game of the season, to scrape in to their conference’s final playoff spot. Miami then lost star guard Tyler Herro to a broken hand in the first game of its series with Milwaukee. And yet here the Heat is, up 3 games to 1 against the supposed best team in basketball, spoiling everyone’s best-laid plans. The Bucks might not be the only team in the East who are hoping that Jimmy Butler and his Miami Heat don’t win another game.