DENVER — Around 9 p.m. Saturday, Jimmy Butler was in a gym at the University of Colorado in Boulder working on his touch on shots near the rim. He’d had 48 hours to think about what went wrong for him and the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the NBA Finals two days prior, and what he could do for Game 2.
Earlier in the day on Saturday, Butler told the media that he planned to try an escape room in Denver that night and do some “normal stuff” – it’s something he likes to do .
But in the end, Butler didn’t run off to an escape room. He escaped to the gym instead, joined by his longtime trainer Chris Brickley.
“He just likes to figure things out,” Brickley told ESPN. “When he does these short shots, everything is different. So we worked on that.”
Butler spent 30 minutes shooting just to find his touch.
“He needs to see the ball go in,” Brickley said. “The games he didn’t do that [before the game], he did not play well. He’s big on it. It’s a question of the mind.”
That’s what Butler and the Heat did during the eighth-seeded Heat’s run to the NBA Finals — figure out what needs to be done to win, then go out and do it.
Butler finished with 21 points in the Heat’s 111-108 win over the Denver Nuggets on Sunday night at the Ball Arena to tie those Finals at one game apiece. But it’s how he did it — being more aggressive to get into the paint, taking 14 shots from inside 18 feet and shooting five free throws — that counted.
Compared to some of his other offensive exploits in these playoffs, it was a pretty pedestrian stat line for Butler. But it was enough, and that’s why the Heat tied those Finals as the series returns to Miami for Game 3 (Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC).
“We’re so focused on what we do well and who we are as a group that at the end of the day, that’s what we fall back on,” Butler said after Sunday’s win. “Make or miss shots, we’re going to be who we are because we don’t worry about anyone else. It’s been like that all year, and it’s not going to change.”
Who are the Heat is a team that keeps figuring out how to win games and series against heavily favored teams no matter how heartbreaking the loss they just suffered (see Game 6 of the Conference Finals of the East), how much the injuries of the players they suffered (Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo) or the talent of a superstar with whom they paired up.
In this series, that superstar is two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, who was sublime in recording his 15th career playoff triple-double in Game 1.
Jokic controlled every facet of the series opener with brilliant play and passing, finishing with 14 assists as the Heat dispatched multiple defenders and threw zone defenses at him. He took five shots before the fourth quarter, then started to score to stem a Heat run and finished with 27 points.
In Game 2, the Heat changed their defensive approach on Jokic, allowing him to score more but limiting his ability to make plays for others.
Jokic read Miami’s defense and scored 11 points in the first quarter and a game-high 41 on the night. But he finished with five turnovers and just four assists, and Denver struggled when Jokic couldn’t command his attack with his usual poise.
During the regular season, Denver went 3-7 as Jokic had less than six assists. As a team, the Nuggets had just six assists for players attacking the basket — none of which came from Jokic — their fewest in the playoffs, according to Second Spectrum.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra dismissed the characterization that the Heat simply chose to turn Jokic into a scorer on Sunday to take his game away from him.
“It’s ridiculous – it’s the untrained eye that says something like that,” Spoelstra said. “This guy is an amazing player. You know, twice in two seasons he’s been the best player on this planet. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, make him a goalscorer. That’s not how they play. They have so many different actions that compromise you.
“We have to focus on what we do. We try to do things the hard way, and he asks you to do a lot of things the hard way. He has our full respect.”
Respect is one thing. Strategy and adjustments are another. Miami did a lot on Sunday night (after Spoelstra said “the plan isn’t going to save us” after Miami lost in Game 1), inserting Kevin Love into its starting lineup for Caleb Martin and trying to disrupt the Jokic’s ability to facilitate for the Nuggets’ other scorers. Jokic responded with more aggression, taking 28 shots, hitting 16 of them. But that’s not always a good thing for the Nuggets.
The Nuggets are 0-3 when Jokic scores 40 or more during the playoffs and 13-1 when he scores under 40, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“I mean, he’s a hell of a player,” Butler said. “He passes the ball so incredibly well. Obviously he can score the ball like he did tonight. But when you have the chance to turn the ball over and get out onto the open field, I feel like we have to do it, and we did a decent job today.”