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How Jimmy Butler did it

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Chicago’s superstar, the scariest player in the series perhaps, was hard to see in the early portions on Game 1. He started shooting 2 of 9 and took one shot in the second quarter. Then, in a flash of brilliant fury, he took the Celts to school late, and the Bulls stole the opener.

NBA: Playoffs-Chicago Bulls at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Butler has been able to hide behind the storylines entering the fifth Bulls-Celtics matchup in history. Another meeting with future hall-of-famer Dwyane Wade appealed to those still looking back at the glory days of the turn of the decade. Same with Rajon Rondo, still filling the assist box almost three years after his Boston exodus.

The rush of Isaiah Thomas’ decision to play in the wake of tragedy drew every camera in the TD Garden toward his pre-game tears. His opening heroics. The hug shared between him and Avery Bradley after his three-pointer. It felt mundane to talk about basketball at that point, putting Chicago’s most relevant player on the back burner.

But this series will go as Butler goes. Game one showed that. For all their struggles in keeping Chicago’s front line off the boards, the Celts controlled the game while Butler was hard to find. Between Jae Crowder and help defense, he was held in check while Rondo stood around facilitating, and Wade was getting stuffed by the rim.

Everything about Chicago was largely underwhelming until Butler stepped into his form and nailed a three-point bomb way behind Jaylen Brown standing at the line. He ended the third quarter with 15. By the final buzzer he had 30. For the Celtics, it all went downhill in 12 minutes.

His persistence in the scoring game—digging a bad shooting night back into a good one and a win—is why the Celts are probably hoping reports that he’s as good as gone this summer come to fruition sooner. Here’s how his in-game flip above anything else changed the series.

Absence

Chicago’s three-guard primary lineup pitted Crowder against Butler defensively. Smart guarded Wade for much of the game. Thomas shared time between Rondo and Jerian Grant. Boston’s defense switches. It’s the name of their defensive game, so Chicago’s offense revolved around looking to catch them rotating slowly. Crowder can be a culprit of this.

That’s where Butler’s absence began. The Celtics were active in helps. They set a nice trap late in the shot clock on Rondo, who they pressured often, forcing Butler to take difficult shots. On the second play Al Horford displayed his excellent footwork through the post for a seamless stop on a switch. It was all golden.

Jimmy Butler had a nice early stop in isolation around the low post, staying square and contesting cleanly. Even Tyler Zeller, in his three minutes, recorded a smooth switch and stop on Butler. It almost forgives the lack of any attempt to rebound that stop.

That was his first quarter: 1-of-5 shooting with his aggressiveness on the drive earning him three points from the line. The Celts played outstanding defense, and it continued into the second quarter.

Butler hit the pine for a bit. Upon returning, he wasn’t part of the offensive action until almost the half, where he was kept off the board again. On this play Marcus Smart—bless his defense—once again proved unscreenable. Butler tried so hard to switch onto Thomas for the drive but couldn’t, so he got a face full of Smart all the way to the rim where he made a nice play to get Wade a three as Bradley drew too far in.

He got his only two points of the quarter on a miscue by Thomas, who got caught staring as Wade missed his drive.

Half the game was gone and Butler hadn’t hurt them yet. It was coming, but the Celtics gave themselves no room for error. Between extra possessions given to Chicago, their own scoring drought in the second, and Crowder foul trouble, the game stayed extremely tight.

These two plays come to mind to start the third. Textbook defense, but the finish wasn’t there for Butler. Rebounding was a real problem in the third, because great defensive stands turned into free points for the Bulls.

In a game so close, against an All-NBA talent like Butler, getting 3-of-7 shooting from Butler on his primary defender is ideal—but not when two of those forced misses become second-chance points.

Presence

The game was deadlocked. Nothing was moving. Butler missed one more shot he should have made breaking from Crowder on a switch. Then, late in the third, it all opened up for him.

Easy dribble handoff three.

A nice pull-screen that got Olynyk out of the paint. Butler reversed on it, spinning Brown out of his shoes and blowing by a last-ditch effort by Smart for two. It was superstar work: making amazing look tranquil.

Then this happened.

Brad Stevens could probably live with him shooting that, but not with the sequence of lost opportunity that allowed it to become the game-tying bucket.

To start the fourth, he hit an easy spot-up jumper over the outstretched arm of Olynyk on a rare switch off Smart.

The Smart option may have been an intelligent one to turn to in this moment. In isolation on Butler while he was scorching the Cs late in the third, Smart created a rare stop via a charging foul.

The one opportunity he got to defend Butler in the fourth was a miraculous recovery to force a miss on a play that developed beautifully offensively. Felicio bumped him back off his feet going to set the high screen, Smart scanned the play and bull-rushed the ensuing shot by Butler. It was a late contest but the effort mattered. Every inch matters in the playoffs and Smart is never willing to give them up.

Instead he ended up away from Butler in the fourth, while the IT&D lineup placed Bradley on him often. When screens came back into play, that proved to be Boston’s doom.

One: Bradley is too short to contest this three.

Two: he gets caught on a low screen by Lopez and it’s an easy two.

Three: the old Thomas trick. On a high screen, dribble around it, feel for contact, and then embrace every bit of it in the shooting motion. Those three free throws Butler got here defined the game. The game that was one possession back and forth was now several possessions ahead in the Bulls’ favor.

It wasn’t on Bradley, who Butler was 2-of-4 against plus the three-point foul. He defended his driving baseline jumper perfectly soon after. Then he got a nice stop on a face-up drive-and-shoot that, surprise, Lopez rebounded off the miss. Bradley is a great defender (I don’t have to tell you that), but the size and style of Butler made it an interesting choice for the fourth quarter.

By the end of the game, with one last drive right past Crowder for two and three free throw makes, Butler went from 15 to 30 in one quarter. The most important one. The one where Thomas should be king. It was a ridiculous night, but give any special player room for error and he’ll make you pay.

Butler’s offensive explosion wasn’t the reason on its own for the loss. That combined with the Celtics’ second-chances, failure to separate themselves through three and their defensive lineup choice in the fourth perpetuated it into a winning formula for Chicago.

To Butler’s credit, his offensive game never stops moving. Turning a 2-of-9 start into a nearly 50% shooting night is sensational. But so was Boston’s 116 offensive rating to close the game. They need to establish control of the game while Chicago’s best player is off his game. The failure to do that lost them game one.