Jimmy Butler played well enough in Philadelphia for this series to be over.
The Miami Heat know it wasted two dominant performances from its best player last weekend. Butler’s games of 33 and 40 points, respectively, in Games 3 and 4 of this Eastern Conference semifinal series against the 76ers were the most he’s ever scored in consecutive playoff games. But instead of enjoying a week off (or more) in preparation for the conference finals, the Heat find itself tied and trying to find a way to get anyone else going on offense.
At a glance, one might deduce this series changed with the arrival of masked Joel Embiid, who missed the first two games in South Beach with a broken face. His massive presence (figuratively and literally, a 7-footer who is 280 pounds, Embiid is much, much bigger than any viable player on the Heat) has fortified the middle of Philadelphia’s defense, installed an immovable object as a rim protector and freed James Harden and Tyrese Maxey from the outsized attention Miami’s defense paid to them in Games 1 and 2.
Then, Harden rediscovered his game next to Embiid on Sunday in a series-tying, 116-108 win, with a 2022-playoff high 31 points on 8-of-18 shooting with six 3-pointers.
The Heat could have — and still can — withstand Embiid’s arrival and Harden’s re-emergence, if, again, literally anyone other than Butler could make some shots. While Butler was 25-of-42 shooting for the weekend, his teammates shot a collective 40 of 117 (35 percent) overall and 11 of 54 (20 percent) from 3-point range.
The answer isn’t quite as simple as just make a few more shots. There is a delicate balance to be struck by coach Erik Spoelstra with his rotation, with tough decisions he’d already made now begging for a second look because of all that has transpired since the playoffs started last month, including a hamstring injury to Kyle Lowry that has not healed.
If we look at Game 1 of Miami’s first-round series against Atlanta (so we are already conceding Spoelstra’s earlier call to switch Duncan Robinson to a reserve and start Max Strus), the Heat’s rotation was a starting five of Lowry, Butler, Strus, Bam Adebayo and P.J. Tucker. Robinson, NBA Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro, Gabe Vincent and Dewayne Dedmon were the reserves. This is a group that gave Spoelstra the mix he was looking for in terms of switchable defenders, ballhandlers and outside shooting.
Though Robinson regressed statistically this season (which paved the way for Spoelstra to sub him out of the starting lineup), he was still the top 3-point shooter on a team that led the NBA in 3-point shooting (he made the most 3s on the team, 232). And in that playoff opener against Atlanta, he led the Heat with 27 points.
In Game 3 of that series, Lowry hurt his hamstring, and that’s when Robinson started to lose his footing in Miami’s rotation. Vincent moved into the starting lineup and Victor Oladipo, a former All-Star who missed most of the last three seasons with leg surgeries, proved his mettle. Lowry’s absence demanded not only Vincent and Oladipo see more time, as ballhandlers, but led to the promotion of Caleb Martin, a plus defender. Vincent played tenacious defense against Trae Young, and Oladipo scored 23 points in a series-clinching win over the Hawks in Game 5. With Lowry still out to start the Philadelphia series, Spoelstra understandably stuck with the same group.