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Jimmy neutralized?

Can the Celtics contain Miami’s Mr. May?

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics Photo by Nick Grace/Getty Images

There may not be a more fitting and formidable foe for Boston than these Heat. On paper, Miami comes into the ECF as the #8 seed, but this run might be the epitome of Heat culture. They’ve peaked at the right time like they always seemingly do in the playoffs. For a Celtics team that has dealt with malaise and haphazard play throughout the year, they’ll need to be sharp from the jump to beat the Heat and that starts with dealing with Jimmy Butler.

If the second round series vs. the Sixers belonged to Al Horford and his defense on Joel Embiid, the Eastern Conference Finals matchup to look out for could be between Butler and Boston’s perimeter defense. With LeBron James leaving for the west coast and the other side of this year’s bracket, Butler has assumed the bully role of the East. This will be his third conference finals in his four years in South Beach — all against the Celtics. He’s not exactly the player that LeBron is even at this advanced age. However, there’s an intensity and level of focus that Boston will have to match.

Butler’s game isn’t particularly shifty or propositional. He’s deliberate and intentional with an innate ability to get in and around the paint and get his shot off. He averaged a hair under 23 points a game on almost 14 shots a game in the regular season, hitting 53.9% and getting to the line nearly nine times a game. He’s ultra-efficient and more so, extremely clutch (see: 56 points in Game 5 against the Bucks followed by 42 in the close out game including every big bucket down the stretch).

Jimmy Butler 2022-2023 shot distribution
NBA Stats

An ankle sprain in Game 1 against the Knicks slowed him down for the rest of the second round and he played more playmaker to eliminate New York; in Games 4, 5, and 6, he tallied 23 assists and just four turnovers. To have any chance against the Celtics, Jimmy Buckets might also need to be Jimmy Dimes.

Midway through the regular season, head coach Erik Spoelstra replaced Kyle Lowry in the starting lineup in favor of Gabe Vincent, a combo guard and willing three-point shooter. Combine that lineup change that also included the insertion of Kevin Love at the tip with Tyler Herro fracturing his shooting hand at the start of the postseason, and you get Jimmy Butler as a do-it-all veteran with more responsibilities as a ball handler heading into the Eastern Conference Finals.

Jimmy Butler ball handler in the pick-and-roll

2022-2023 Possessions per game Frequency Points per possession Percentile
2022-2023 Possessions per game Frequency Points per possession Percentile
Regular Season 4.8 24.90% 1.09 91.4
Playoffs 10.8 40.30% 0.98 60.4

For the Celtics, they’re used to this grift. After dealing with Trae Young and Dejounte Murray in Round 1 and handling James Harden in Round 2, Butler poses a similar threat to the Celtics defense: can they contain him in the mid-range without fouling and letting him get to the restricted area?

On one hand, the fact that Butler isn’t much of a perimeter threat — 35% on just 1.6 attempts in the regular season — shrinks the area of his effectiveness. On the other, he’ll do everything he can to get Boston’s eight-man rotation into foul trouble by halftime.

Butler played in just two games against the Celtics this season so it’s admittedly a small sample size, but you can expect two of Boston’s most stout defenders, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, to defend him.

Just as he did with Harden, Brown’s size and athleticism was able to offset some of Butler’s bully ball technique. On 34 possessions, Butler managed just 2-of-7 from the floor against JB. Smart was equally as impressive, holding Butler to 2-of-4 with one turnover on 30 possessions.

But this is the playoffs. The games are different and Jimmy Butler is certainly different. If basketball nirvana is scoring 51 points in a Game 7, basketball hell might be trying to contain Jimmy Butler from doing the same.

DraftKings Odds

For Game 1 on Wednesday, the Celtics open as 8-point favorites at TD Garden and are a -525 to represent the East in The NBA Finals.

Our friends at DraftKings have pegged Butler’s over/under at 27.5 (-120/-110). That’s a shade under his 31.1 points per game average so far in the playoffs. It’s taken some monster nights from Butler to advance this far. In addition to those aforementioned masterclasses to close out Milwaukee, he scored 25, 28, 27, and 24 in wins against the Knicks as opposed to 35, 30, 56, and 42 vs. the Bucks.

If Boston can keep him around that over/under point total and repeat their defensive success against Embiid and Harden, that could mean a short series for the Celtics. After being so good offensively for so long all year, they’ve embraced their defensive identity from last season with Robert Williams re-entering the starting lineup and yes, their playoff intensity with it. If Games 6 and 7 against Philadelphia are truly a corner turned, I’ve got Celtics in 5.

Check out DraftKings Sportsbook, the official sportsbook partner of SB Nation.

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