The Jimmy Butler Shot, and How We Think and Talk About Basketball

I consume a fair amount of NBA related media. Probably more than I should. I was listening to Tuesday’s "Mismatch" podcast, featuring former Celticsblogger Kevin O’Connor, in the car. They were discussing which teams could make the Finals from each conference. The Heat came up as a Finals contender because they were "one shot away" last season. Were they?

Fans and media members talk about end of game shots this way all of the time. I’ve heard many times that in 2019 the 76ers were one Kawhi buzzer beater away from beating the eventual champion Raptors in game 7. They were not. They were one Kawhi buzzer beater away from going to overtime. The game was tied 90-90 when Kawhi took that shot.

On the other hand Kevin Durant really was one inch/toe away from knocking out the eventual champion Bucks in 2021. KD made a toe on the line 2 to tie the game with 1 second left. A 3 would have given them a 1 point lead with 1 second on the clock.

How does Jimmy Butler’s missed 3 compare to those shots? First of all KD was a 45% 3 point shooter in the 20/21 season. Kawhi was a 37.1% shooter in 18/19, and a 42% shooter from the corner where he took that shot (just inside the 3 point line). Butler was a 23.3% 3 point shooter on low volume last season, and he was even worse above the break. We also have to look at context. While Kawhi and KD were taking buzzer beaters Butler’s shot came with 17 seconds left on the clock.

Butler was taking an ultra low percentage pull up 3 to take a 1 point lead with 17 seconds left. Not only that, but the Celtics missed a number of much higher percentage shots. What if one of those shots had gone in? Marcus Smart, who shot 10% better from 3 than Butler last season on higher volume, missed 3 wide open 3s in the waning minutes that could have effectively ended the game. Jaylen Brown was called for a questionable offensive foul on a play where Bam jumped about 5 feet sideways into him while defending his drive. That could have easily been a game ending shooting foul. Max Strus, an excellent shooter, made a heavily contested fadeaway 3 to cut the lead to 2. Marcus Smart making 1 of his 3 wide open 3s or a call like Jaylen’s offensive foul going the other way were much much more likely than Butler’s pull up off the dribble above the break 3 going in.

The memory of that shot and the dramatic context tends to stick in the mind, and so the Heat get credit for being "one shot away" from the Finals. We tend to forget all of the coin flip calls and the wide open higher percentage shots the Celtics missed. The other thing Chris Vernon and KOC are forgetting is that the Heat were a better team in a weaker conference last season. While other teams got better the Heat lost PJ Tucker and got older. Last season’s Heat were the number 1 seed. They battled through injuries to a 53-29 record. To reach that mark this year they would need to finish the season 30-9.

In 2019/20 the Heat had a .603 winning percentage. They finished 4th in the East. They had a +2.7 net rating (8th in the NBA), and went to the Finals.

In 2020/21 the Heat had a .556 winning percentage. They finished 6th in the East. They had a -.1 net rating (17th in the NBA), and were swept in the first round.

In 2021/22 the Heat had a .646 winning percentage. They finished 1st in the East. They had a +4.5 net rating (6th in the NBA), and lost in the ECF.

In 2022/23 the Heat have a .535 winning percentage. They are currently 8th in the East. They have a -.3 net rating, which is 18th in the NBA.

In the Jimmy Butler era the Heat have done well in the playoffs… wait for it… when they’re a good team. When they weren’t as good they didn’t do so well. Right now the Heat are improving, but still don’t look anything like a contender. They’re unlikely to finish in the top 4 in the East, and as a result would have to beat 3 of the Celtics, Nets, Bucks, Cavs, and/or 76ers in 7 game series to get to the Finals. Good luck!

The point I’m trying to make is that our memories about games and plays can lie to us. Butler kind of almost making a low percentage go ahead shot to cap off a miraculous comeback is a stronger memory than other facts like the Celtics outscored the Heat 735 to 698 in the series (5.3 points per game, which would be 2nd in the league in point differential this season), or any of the other actual facts from the series… like the Heat actually won the game that Butler left with an injury.

I’ve noticed a few discussions recently in comment sections about the value of statistics when analyzing a game. Human perception is flawed. Our memories are not video recordings that we can play back. There is a long list of biases and fallacies that we can fall prey to as fans. Stats aren’t an end all be all, but along with looking at what actually happened in the game, we can see if what we thought we saw was what we actually saw. This is the value of data/ empirical evidence. It helps us understand, and that should be a good thing.

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