By TIM REYNOLDS
AP Basketball Writer
MIAMI (AP) — These are Jimmy Butler’s three highest-scoring games in a Miami uniform: 40 points against Milwaukee, 40 points against the Los Angeles Lakers, 45 points against Atlanta. And those efforts have quite a bit in common.
He had at least 20 shot attempts and 12 free throws in each of those games.
The Heat won all three contests.
And all three happened in the playoffs.
Butler’s best Miami moments tend to come when it matters most — the postseason. His 45-point effort against the Hawks on Tuesday night gave top-seeded Miami a 2-0 series lead in their Eastern Conference first-round matchup that resumes on Friday in Atlanta. He said afterward that he simply took what the defense gave him. His teammates and coaches said it was far more impressive than that.
“Jimmy is a max guy, a go-guy, a killer,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “However you want to describe it, who cares? He knows how to win. He knows how to help teams win. The game is played on both sides of the floor. It’s played with IQ. It’s played with toughness. It’s played with making plays in those winning moments. It’s not necessarily what everybody thinks it is.”
It wasn’t Bubble Jimmy, either. Butler himself shot down that comparison.
That moniker comes from when Butler was Miami’s best player at the NBA’s season-restart bubble at Walt Disney World two years ago, when he carried the Heat on an improbable run to the NBA Finals. He’s still Miami’s best player, but this is a new version, he insists.
“I’m a different player now then I was then and I’m OK with that,” Butler said. “I just always want to play basketball the right way and do whatever it takes to help this team, this organization win. That’s why they brought me here.”
The previous time a Heat player scored at least 45 points in a game, before Tuesday, was nearly eight years ago — May 12, 2014, when LeBron James scored a team playoff record 49 for Miami in a win at Brooklyn. The previous time it happened at home was March 3, 2014, when James put on a mask to protect a facial injury and scored a team regular-season record 61 for Miami in a win over Charlotte.
The Heat were the only team since James’ big playoff night against the Nets in 2014 that hadn’t had a player score 45 points in a game since. Butler changed that, emphatically, while sticking to his credo of just doing “whatever it takes to help this team win.”
Butler is unapologetically and manically driven, almost always grating on opponents and sometimes even grating on teammates — people are still talking about the dustup Butler had with Spoelstra and Udonis Haslem during an in-game huddle a month ago. But nights such as Tuesday remind the Heat of the level that Butler can reach at this time of year, when a championship is all that matters.
“I think you have to have that dark side, kind of that demeanor that you need to push other people to be better,” Heat point guard Kyle Lowry said. “But you also have to have the talent and work ethic to do it, right? You can talk about it, but if you’re not about it and you don’t show it, it’s different. He shows it. He shows it when he plays, he shows it when he comes to work. He’s always here. He’s on time and ready to do his thing and go out there and go to battle.”
Butler’s statistical averages through the first two games of this playoff run for the top-seeded Heat: 33 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game, on 60% shooting from the field and — most surprisingly — 56% from the 3-point line, an area that hasn’t exactly been a strength of his throughout this season. He’s gotten to the foul line more than any three of his Heat teammates have combined in the series, plus has committed only two fouls in 72 minutes of play.
Again, though, he insists that this isn’t Bubble Jimmy.
“We’re a different team and I’m a different player,” Butler said. “We’re better this way.”
There is a work-life balance, even at this time of year for Butler.
After Miami’s Game 1 win on Sunday afternoon, Butler talked about getting out of the arena quickly to spend time with his daughter before she went to sleep that night. Then, and only then, would he turn his attention toward Game 2. And in the hours before Game 2, he had his non-basketball habits as well. He listened to the Backstreet Boys. (“I’m a huge fan,” Butler said.) He had lots of his BigFace brand of coffee. (“Need it,” he said.) He played spades for a while. (“Rituals,” he said.)
Then he showed up at the arena and dropped 45 on the Hawks, going on a personal 7-0 run in the final moments to clinch the win.
Bubble Jimmy, Playoff Jimmy, whoever it was, the Heat just hope to see a lot more of him over the next few weeks.
“A guy like Jimmy, he can play defense, he can play offense,” Lowry said. “He hasn’t had an opportunity to get to his championship yet, but that’s the goal. His ultimate goal is to win a championship and I think he will do whatever it takes and be whatever type of player he needs to be to get that.”