Jimmy Butler devoured the Celtics Friday night. Dipped them in barbecue sauce. Even helped himself to seconds.
Simply put, Butler had the game of his life, summoning a performance reminiscent of LeBron James in 2012, when he silenced the Garden with a 45-point tour de force that would ultimately end the Celtics’ “Big Three” dynasty. Butler had an answer for everything the Celtics did or didn’t do in Game 6, putting Miami on his back, just as he did in the Bubble two years ago. All this after looking as broken as a bad faucet, leaking confidence all over the floor in Games 4 and 5 while battling a painful knee injury.
The Eastern Conference Finals has played out like a bad acid trip, a two-week hallucination of injuries, bricklaying and bad offense. It all comes down to Sunday, with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line (the Warriors have to be licking their chops, resting comfortably as Miami and Boston trade body blows in a seven-game war of attrition). But it didn’t have to.
The Celtics had their chances Friday. Jayson Tatum rebounded from a sluggish Game 5 to score 30 points. They forced 17 turnovers. Bam Adebayo, as he’s been throughout the series, was useless (six points in 41 minutes). Max Strus and Kyle Lowry fouled out. After trailing by as many as 13, the Celtics held a three-point lead with four minutes remaining. Momentum was in their favor.
Then Jimmy Butler happened, taking a knife to Boston’s throat with a barrage of fourth-quarter daggers, none more devastating than this impossible corner three with the shot clock expiring.
Not known for his three-point prowess, Butler shot an abysmal 23.3 percent from beyond the arc this season. Friday, he was 4-of-8, equaling the number of threes he made in Games 1-5.
You could argue the Celtics played better, at least offensively, than they did in either of their wins in Games 4 and 5. This wasn’t a case of one team “wanting” it more than the other (is there a more tired cliché in sports?). The Celtics wanted it plenty. Butler was just better. Period. Full stop.
Joel Embiid made headlines earlier this week when he tweeted the Heat need another star. No, they don’t. Not if Butler plays like this, dominating at both ends of the court like 90s Era Michael Jordan.
For the Celtics, Friday was a night of missed opportunities. Jaylen Brown clanked a pair of free throws that would have put them ahead with two minutes to go. Tatum was held to a single field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter and called for a suspect charge that probably warranted another look from the officiating crew led by Zach Zarba, Courtney Kirkland and Eric Lewis (Ime Udoka foolishly wasted his challenge earlier on a Grant Williams foul that was never in a million years getting overturned). Al Horford spent much of the night in foul trouble, as did Williams.
Ugly as Friday was for the Celtics, who have lost five straight games with a chance to clinch an NBA Finals berth since 2012, there’s reason for optimism heading into Sunday’s winner-take-all Game 7. The C’s are 5-0 following a loss this postseason and homecourt has meant diddly this series with the visitors winning four of six games. Who knows how much Butler has left to give after playing an exhausting 46 minutes in Game 6. Under similar circumstances, Boston manhandled Milwaukee in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semis, eliminating the Bucks in blowout fashion. The Celtics are about as healthy as they’ll ever be with Marcus Smart and Robert Williams both back in the lineup after absences earlier this series. The C’s are 2.5-point road favorites and probably should be. The question is, does Butler have another masterpiece in him?