During the Miami Heat’s gentleman’s sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks, propelling them to their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since 2014, Jimmy Butler was the Frankenstein of stars. He leveraged strength to carve out space as a driver like Kawhi Leonard. He paraded to the free throw line like James Harden. At times, he took over in the clutch like Chris Paul. He toggled among any on-ball defensive assignment thrust upon him like Ben Simmons.
Across five games, Butler averaged 23.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 1.8 steals on 68.2 percent true shooting (53.2/45.5/85.2) with an .871 free throw rate, generating elite scoring efficiency against the NBA’s top-ranked regular season defense. If anything, he was too deferential and passive throughout the series, going long stretches without a shot or imprinting himself as an on-ball creator. To his benefit, Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer limited Wesley Matthews’ minutes (129 in five games) and Matthews was the only guy who routinely flustered Butler. That is only tangentially related, though. Butler dissected Milwaukee as an initiator the same way he’s dissected teams for over half a decade, wielding outlier ankle flexibility, precise footwork, and functional strength to compromise defenders and generate advantages.
Despite not being much of a pull-up shooter — and he’s never been a high-level one — Butler is consistently able to inhabit the paint. While not quite as strong as Kawhi or LeBron, Butler is a ridiculously powerful wing who methodically plows through defenders or dislodges them to venture as he prefers. All he requires is a sliver of an advantage. He has economical footwork and keeps the ball close to his body, preventing guys from poking it loose. His handle is not flashy or dangerous like Kyrie Irving’s or Steph Curry’s, but it is undoubtedly an asset. Few players can disrupt him without risking a foul.
He also busts out hop-steps and jump-stops, paired with a quick second leap, to enact subtle advantages. He’s also patient as a ball-handler. The Bucks did not do enough to deter him from his spots on the floor and he regularly found his way inside — 42 of his 62 field goal attempts came in the paint.
His strength shines through on these buckets, but much of it is primed by the footwork and pivoting. Every step and decision is calculated and intentional to compensate for his finite off-the-bounce shooting. Most defenders do not and should not respect him when he’s taking a three or a long two, so he has turned toward other avenues to serve as a viable go-to creator.
Most fascinating, even more so than the footwork and strength, is his ankle flexibility. Particularly challenging to recognize in real time, freeze a clip and you’ll notice the bionic joints enabling his slashing aptitude. So many players are limited by rigid limbs and joints that can often be mistaken for burst, handle, or explosion deficiencies. Butler is not one of them. He bends, contorts, stops, and starts without fear of his ankles withering under the stress.
Jimmy Butler's ankle flexibility is absurd. Look at the angle of his right leg on this drive: pic.twitter.com/fQLfshOcK7
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) September 10, 2020
Another one. Just ridiculously fascinating to me pic.twitter.com/YH06lsGrr3
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) September 10, 2020
Ankles are not usually pliable like Butler’s; his right ankle is at an ~45-degree angle in the first picture! They allow him the edge he needs on the margins to continue thriving while he distances himself from the three-ball and leans into this interior-oriented shot profile as a perimeter-oriented creator.
All of the traits and skills prevalent in his scoring arsenal, strength, footwork, ankle flexibility, and protective handle were on display with his facilitating. Despite not representing the most proactive or dazzling of playmakers, Butler’s proclivity for populating the heart of defenses, as well as composure and prompt decision-making, contrives passing windows.
Anchoring him with shooters on the perimeter and a play finisher inside (Bam Adebayo) lessens the complexity of his reads. Butler could attract help, scan through his outlets and proceed. He averaged 10.8 potential assists in the series (14th among 99 conference semifinals participants) and was 12th in assists adjusted (6.8), which consolidates the total sum of a player’s or team’s assists, free throw assists, and secondary assists. Butler’s distributing reinforces the value of paint touches and size, allowing him to spot more options for initiators. While his distributing resume against Milwaukee was not gaudy, it was highly effective.
He didn’t solely operate as a lead handler, embracing versatility as a screener, roller, and cutter to dispel the already misguided notion that winning occurs on Butler-led teams only when he dictates the terms and is ball-dominant. For long periods, he was content setting picks for fellow initiators — most commonly Goran Dragic — diving to the rim, popping for threes or enticing switches for him to exploit. Other times, he blended into the background, helping to facilitate Miami’s screen- and motioned-based offense as a pick man or cutter.
He provided a slate for stylistic diversity offensively, both in how the Heat approached on-ball creation and maximized their stable of wing shooting, headlined by Duncan Robinson, Jae Crowder, and Tyler Herro. Butler is a downhill bruiser intent on slashing to the rim; Dragic is the complement as a savvy pull-up scorer. The duality and malleability of his role in this series resembled that of an idealized Ben Simmons, a concept many clamor for but has escaped Butler’s former Sixers teammate for much of his career. Butler is not the passer or finisher of Simmons, though the fundamental theory remains, and Butler has excelled through this dichotomy. Perhaps more worthy of praise in this discussion of Jimmy Butler is his embracing of contact and how willing he is to simply crash into or barrel through rim protectors in pursuit of a bucket. Not everyone is conditioned to accept that physical toll. Butler is, which broadens his deployment.
This series also showcased the merits of his defensive versatility. Miami’s scheme to slow down Milwaukee necessitated these services and he flourished in the first three games — beset by undisciplined off-ball sequences and apathy on the ball in Games 4 and 5 after claiming a 3-0 lead. The Heat founded their approach upon three switchy wings and an agile center in Adebayo, Butler, Crowder, and Andre Iguodala, confident they were mobile and brawny enough to combat Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, and Khris Middleton. That bet, of course, delivered, and leaves them four wins away from the Finals.
Butler spent the majority of his time guarding Middleton, but comfortably switched onto seemingly everyone in the Bucks’ rotation. While Middleton too seamlessly reached many of his desired zones around the floor against Butler, this switch-heavy gambit prevented Milwaukee from pressuring the rim to the degree it was accustomed. Middleton excels at making difficult shots and the Bucks were unable to collapse Miami’s defense to manufacture efficient offense. Much of this stemmed from Butler and his on-ball exploits, capable of handling his assignment without help or shaded positioning that threatens the structural integrity of a defense.
Every good offense thrives off of advantages. The Heat, in large part because of Butler, did not concede them and held the opposition to a 106.6 offensive rating, sixth among the eight conference semifinal teams (this is largely just a trivial reference point, given everyone is playing a different opponent).
In offering relative resistance on the ball against each of the Bucks’ offensive pillars, Butler solidified Miami’s philosophy, more of a vital linking cog than individual hinge. Without any of the hulking front-court quartet, the plan was unlikely to fare as well as it did. Off the ball, though, Butler was a consummate freelancer and punctual helper. He banked on the Bucks lacking the playmakers — and, even, the shooters in some cases — to manipulate his overzealous tendencies and won out. Mostly, though, his ball-hawking instincts and aggressive rotations dissuaded drives and actions to stymie possessions or yielded turnovers for transition run-outs.
Whether it was operating at the nail, where he’s among the NBA’s best defenders, altering shots inside, or plunging into plays as an agent of chaos, Butler thrived during the first three games. Despite shifting into autopilot for much of the final two games, he inflicted havoc as Miami staked a 3-0 lead, fronted by its two-way star.
Explaining Jimmy Butler’s performance against the Bucks through a jack of all trades, master of none angle would be understandable, although ultimately, that’s off-base. When the sport is reduced to scoring, passing, and defense, that assumption carries legitimacy. But his blend of paint frequency, foul-drawing (10.8 free throws per game), and two-way adaptability all enabled the Heat to adhere to a game plan designed by, arguably, the NBA’s best coach.
Miami is the sort of opportunity Butler has long sought. Amid this playoff run, he is extinguishing talking points written at previous pit stops on his journey to South Beach. Oscillating between five-position on-ball irritant and off-ball roamer defensively while donning any offensive cap required, Butler is proving he might’ve always been right about himself. Prickly and demanding as he is, this is merely how he hunts for wins. All it entailed was the proper ecosystem to justify those characteristics, vindicated by his wide-ranging, end-to-end, piecemeal brand of stardom.