The Great NBA Finals Matchup of Our Times? Millennial Jordan vs. Dad in Flip Flops.
The church of clutch is a dominant faith in the realm of American sports talk, and with good reason. Any top-level pro can make plays. They’ve done it at high-school level, in college, in practice, in plenty of regular-season games. But the very best players do it when it matters, consistently, and the true greats do it in the biggest moments. If there’s a patron saint of this religion at the moment, it’s Jimmy Butler, currently d.b.a. “Playoff Jimmy,” a man who seems to bide his time throughout the regular season, waiting for the real games to begin. He averaged just shy of 23 points in 2022-23—nothing to sniff at—but in these playoffs, he’s hiked that up to 28.5.
Along the way, his Miami Heat have seen off Giannis Antetokounmpo and the 58-win Milwaukee Bucks, a defiantly scrappy New York Knicks team, and a 57-win Boston Celtics outfit led by superstar Jayson Tatum. Against the Bucks, Butler turned in a 56-point masterpiece that Charles Barkley called the best playoff performance he’d seen since he’d been on television. “It was an honor and privilege to watch it,” he said. “That guy was not going to let them lose tonight.” Them was a Heat squad that won 44 regular-season games and lost their first play-in bout to create perhaps the longest, most arduous route possible to the NBA Finals under the league’s newish playoff system. Now they’re four wins from the franchise’s fourth championship ring—and Butler’s first.
When you hear “clutch” in an NBA context, you probably think of Michael Jordan’s hanging-jumper buzzer-beaters. Butler’s is a particular variety. The Heat took Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals in Boston thanks to his 35 points, but also his six steals. He's averaging more than two robberies a game in the playoffs. Jimmy Buckets is a system star of grit and guile and graft, a two-point maestro who barrels to the basket or works himself an opening in the mid-range with clever footwork or an opportune elbow. His clutch shots are as likely to be free throws earned through obstinate forward motion into the paint, 2006-Dwyane Wade-style, as a deep three. Butler can get you three points when the time is right, but in a refreshing break from today’s rain-from-deep NBA, he does not force long jumpers out of rhythm with a hand in his eyeline. He trusts his teammates and uses them.
But what’s really had folks wondering if Butler is the Millennial MJ in recent weeks—beyond some outlandish conspiracies—is the cold ruthlessness with which he’s gone about his work in the time when champions are made. It was treated as an obvious, embarrassing error when the Celtics’ Grant Williams talked trash in his ear back in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, a poke-the-bear moment on the level of Dillon Brooks’ challenge to LeBron James a few weeks earlier. James is on basketball’s Mount Rushmore, a summit beyond Butler’s grasp, but it’s the Heat talisman who’s garnered the comparisons to Jordan because of that ferocious intensity, the the mercurial competitive edge. That guy was not going to let them lose. Though it took a while—the Celtics stormed back from 3-0 down to take it to a Game 7 in which, we ought to mention, Tatum picked up a hobbling injury early on—Jimmy Buckets finished off the C’s with the steely relentlessness of an action-movie assassin. Granted, he didn’t do it alone: Caleb Martin had himself a game. “They’re gonna be calling him ‘Mr. Martin’ at the bank soon,” Barkley said afterwards.
Butler has now dragged himself up the mountain to do battle at mile high. Game 1 will be in Denver, where the Heat haven’t beaten the Nuggets since 2016, way before Nikola Jokic became perhaps the best player in basketball. Even if he missed out on the regular-season MVP award, the Serb has become the most visually unlikely superstar in (the history of?) basketball. He was .2 assists off averaging a triple-double this season: 24.5 points, 11.8 rebounds, 9.8 dimes, and he shot 63% from the field, all while looking like some combination of Frankenstein’s creation and Mr. Fantastic, his extendo arms zooming around his opponents’ backs. He shuffles around the court without any particular speed, and yet he can't be stopped. His elastic limbs create languid dribbles and wraparound bounce passes and looping circus shots and sky-arcing jumpers from a formidable release point high above his nearly 7-foot frame. Seth Rosenthal once described him as playing "every minute as if he's wearing flip-flops," to which Brian Grubb responded that he looks like "someone's dad [who] joined the pickup game and holy crap he's cooking us." It seems almost unbelievable that he is an elite athlete, but he’s among the most dominant players in years and an absolute joy to watch, particularly if you like a big man who can pass. Boy, can he pass.
He’s putting up nearly 30 a game in the postseason, plus 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists. There’s that triple-double average he was chasing. It’s this kind of production that powered Denver as they saw off the sharp-shooting Phoenix Suns and the LeBron James-led Los Angeles Lakers. But if Butler’s not alone—aided by Martin, Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson, and Kyle Lowry—then Jokic is really not alone. Jamal Murray is playing like a genuine All-Star, while Michael Porter, Jr., Aaron Gordon, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are bringing good minutes as well. The Nuggets are the prohibitive favorites, and they would have been even if the Heat had finished a sweep of the Celtics. Now that all that business dragged out across three more arduous games, Denver will be eyeing up their opponents as a wounded animal.
Which the Heat might turn out to be, with all the desperate menace that comes with it. They’ve been favored to go out at every stage of these playoffs with the possible exception of the New York Knicks, who ended up matching their dogged grinding through Jalen Brunson’s exhibition of what it means to be a competitor. The Nuggets will need some of that to get the organization’s first ring in their history against a team with whom they have… history. Back in 2021, Jokic responded to a cheap shot from the Heat’s Markieff Morris by returning the favor, blasting Morris in the back with a shoulder-slash-forearm shiver like a bull who saw red. “Bring that shit!” Butler seemed to shout across the floor towards Jokic, by then on the Denver bench after the ensuing melee. “Bring your ass to the back!”
Butler played it all down this week, and there’s little indication of any slow-roasting beef in the years since. But it’s winning time, and all the usual suspects have left the party. Steph Curry and the Warriors are gone, felled by LeBron and the Lakers. Giannis is cooked, and so are the Celtics. If we don't get fisticuffs, it will be a clash of skill and style and persona. At the end of it, we'll have some fresh faces for champions, and one of the league's more enigmatic characters will have some new hardware. Will it be Millennial MJ, or the Dad in Flip-Flops? We'll get our first clue tonight at 8:30 P.M. Eastern.
From: Esquire US