Jimmy Butler Can't Rely on Foul Calls if the Heat Want to Reach Greater Heights

Liam McKeone
Jimmy Butler
Jimmy Butler / Pool/Getty Images
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Jimmy Butler has always wanted to be a winner. So badly, in fact, that he got himself traded out of Chicago and Minnesota, then left Philadelphia of his own accord, leaving rumors of harsh leadership and locker room issues in his wake. Butler wants to win, to be known as a winner. Yet in his career, he has struggled to become that. He's had regular season success and playoff success, but failed to get past the second round in nine seasons heading into the 2019-20 campaign.

Finally, though, Butler did just that. The Miami Heat, Butler's squad through-and-through, upset the Milwaukee Bucks in five games to advance to this year's Eastern Conference Finals. There's no complaining about Butler's demanding style of leadership or any locker room leaks about Butler holding too high of a standard for his teammates. The Heat, like Butler, put their heads down and work while reminding everyone they're doing so.

The question is no longer if Butler can lead his team to playoff success -- although that question was always a tad overblown anyway given the supporting cast he often found himself with when he finally did get to the postseason. Getting to the ECF as a five-seed is proof Butler can do just that, as the Heat became the lowest seed to reach the Eastern Conference Finals since the Indiana Pacers did so as an eight-seed in 1999. Miami benefited from the ankle injury suffered by Giannis Antetokounmpo and some questionable whistles went their way, but the Heat played like the better team and the series never felt particularly close.

No, the question now facing Butler is if he can go even further. Butler's game is built for playoff basketball. He's a tough defender who can stick with most of the wings thrown his way in any given series. He loves the midrange, an area defenses are happy to leave open for him, and hits those jumpers at a reasonable rate. He's a brick house who can get into the lane on offense and not only find but finish through contact.

The problem is that Butler's point production is heavily predicated on getting whistles. In the four 2020 playoff games Butler attempted more than 10 free throws, he averaged 31 points per game. In the five games he had fewer than 10 free-throw attempts, he averaged only 14 points per game. Whistles are a bit harder to come by in the postseason, and no matter who comes out of the Toronto/Boston series, Butler will be faced with a wall of savvy defenders who will rarely give up an easy lane to the bucket. Relying that much on the charity stripe can go sideways quickly if the officials are letting contact go that day.

Obviously, Butler does not need to score all the points for the Heat to win. I imagine that's partly why he likes it there so much. Goran Dragic has proven to be a consistent source of production in that regard, and Miami's stable of shooters combined with Erik Spoelstra's drive-and-kick system makes for offensive success no matter how Butler is doing. That's why the Heat were able to beat Milwaukee by nine in a closeout game with only 17 points coming from Butler. It's a well-coached, well-constructed team that is greater than the sum of its parts, as cliche as that whole idea is.

The correlation between Butler's free-throw success and output can be considered a troubling trend now that it's playoff basketball where everything is more physical. He had good games this season without a high number of free throws, but the pattern in the bubble has been fairly straightforward. When he gets calls, he has a big night. When he doesn't, it's a different story. Butler will have to make his shots when the time comes to battle for the Eastern Conference title, because the whistles won't always be on his side.

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