The best players write their own stories. Jimmy Butler, the Miami Heat’s main character, knew what he was doing late Friday night when he revealed the private conversation he had with franchise legend Dwyane Wade before Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. According to Butler, Wade told him to forget his knee soreness, because no one cares anyway, and to “continue to build your legacy.”
A good storyteller such as Butler would call this context. If he needed a little more tension, Butler could’ve used the detail of teammates PJ Tucker and Markieff Morris telling him he needed to drop 50 in the must-win game. With that kind of buildup, the audience could further delight in the conclusion: Butler’s sensational night, when he scored a playoff career-high 47 points to go with nine rebounds, eight assists and four steals — on the Boston Celtics’ home court.
Now with another postseason masterpiece — a performance that can compare to some of the greatest ever seen in elimination games — Butler’s legacy only intensifies the anticipation of a Game 7 moment Sunday in Miami.
“Jimmy Butler is a great competitor; he really is,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said, using his star’s full name because just “Jimmy” doesn’t cut it anymore. “You can mis-define him in a lot of different ways, but his competitive will is as high as anybody that has played this game. He put his fingerprints on this game.”
Boston could use more of Jayson Tatum’s and Jaylen Brown’s impressions on Game 7. The two have grown up together as professionals, the baby Celtics who never had much use for a big brother. Injuries ruined Gordon Hayward’s tenure in Boston, and the Kyrie Irving cameo lasted only two years and produced vitriol that will endure every time he sets foot on TD Garden’s parquet floor.
So without relying on a veteran superstar, the young tandem learned from their early highs and lows (the seven-game Eastern Conference finals against the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers during Tatum’s rookie season), developed into stars themselves and this season pulled Boston out of the play-in picture and into championship contention.
Through each round of the playoffs — sweeping Irving, Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Netsthen dethroning the champion Milwaukee Bucks before taking on the Heat — the duo have silenced any lingering questions about how they may or may not fit together. Their partnership gave Boston all the context its story needed: Up three games to two, the Celtics were expected to win by their potential opponent waiting in the West. Draymond Green and the Golden State Warriors had just punched their ticket to the Finals on Thursday when Green predicted on TNT, “We’re going to play Boston.”
And they were on their home floor where with a win the 24-year-old Tatum would have hoisted the trophy named after Boston’s favorite, Larry Bird, as the first Eastern Conference finals MVP.
With a win, Tatum and Brown would’ve elevated into the rare green air of Celtics lore. But Butler had a talk with Wade, ignored the lingering inflammation in his right knee, then spent the night writing more chapters in the book of Playoff Jimmy.
“D-Wade never hits me until his voice is really, really needed. And it was,” Butler said. “I texted him and told him I appreciated him for it. Just to let me go out there, continue to build on that legacy and make sure that we win.”
At the same time, the two Boston stars — neither of them have earned such a cool nickname yet — went missing when their contributions mattered most. Together, they combined to attempt seven field goals in the second half.
As individuals, they looked more like the neophytes from 2018 instead of the veterans they should be: Tatum spent the fourth quarter treating the ball as though it had been saturated in butter, committing four of his game-high seven turnovers, while Brown blew a pair of late free throws when the score was tied at 99. Overwriting their mistakes with his own story, Butler showed up on the next Miami possession, swooping in from near the right baseline and scoring through Al Horford’s foul.
“Sometimes you just need your best players and your guy to make plays,” Spoelstra said. “He was able to do that in those moments of truth.”
There may not be a more compelling drama in sports than a Game 7, but often the preceding matchup can be just as thrilling. We don’t get the indelible image of LeBron, hunched forward and eyes threatening, if he doesn’t first save the Heat against Boston in Game 6 of the 2012 East finals. Klay Thompson does n’t call himself “Game 6 Klay” without his legacy-making performance of him, willing the Warriors past the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016 on a night they could’ve been eliminated. And there’s no Jay-Z shout-out to “Jackson … Tyson … Jordan — Game 6″ if Michael Jordan doesn’t hit that championship-clinching jumper against the Utah Jazz in 1998.
Add Butler’s Game 6 performance to that same top shelf. Only Wilt Chamberlain scored more points (50) than Butler in a road playoff win while facing elimination. The player with the third-most points in the same scenario? Tatum, who scored 46 points in Game 6 against the Bucks in the previous round.
On Sunday, legacies will be on the line. Butler already seemed to understand that in Game 6; Tatum and Brown did not. To use Heat teammate Kyle Lowry’s description on how Butler seized the moment the way a superstar should: “It’s f—ing incredible.”
His may need the bleep button, but Butler’s narrative keeps growing. Maybe some mature words could help the young Boston stars as they try to write their own legacies.