The Heat nearly blew a 26-point lead to lose Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, but the team’s chief concern moving forward is the status of All-Star forward Jimmy Butler.
Miami ruled Butler out for the second half Saturday night because of right knee inflammation. After the Heat held on for a 109-103 victory, the only update coach Erik Spoelstra could share was that Butler would not undergo an MRI.
On Sunday, the team announced Butler was questionable for Monday’s Game 4, along with teammates Tyler Herro (groin), Kyle Lowry (hamstring), Max Strus (hamstring), P.J. Tucker (knee), and Gabe Vincent (hamstring).
Butler played 20 minutes in the first half Saturday, connecting on 3 of his 8 field goal attempts for 8 points. Spoelstra said Butler seemed a little bit off, so trainers evaluated the situation and made the decision at halftime.
“He didn’t have his normal explosive burst,” Spoelstra said. “But he’s a great competitor. Even when he was out there, he was able to be efficient, he was able to defend. His competitiveness will overtake everything, and he’s going to put it all out there.”
This knee inflammation also sidelined Butler for Game 5 of Miami’s first-round series against Atlanta. He returned to play all six games of the conference semifinals against Philadelphia, averaging 37.5 minutes in the series. The Heat better hope the injury doesn’t sideline Butler beyond Saturday, as he’s the heart and soul of their offense — and Miami almost bungled a 15-point fourth-quarter lead without him.
Asked what would change the most for his team if Butler were to miss time, Spoelstra wouldn’t entertain that possibility.
“I don’t even want to go there,” he said. “I haven’t even had a chance to talk to our trainers.”
Herro sported a wrap around his quad while standing on the sidelines in the second half. The guard, often a reliable offensive spark off the bench, finished 4 of 15 from the field, including 0 of 6 from three, for 8 points. He played just 3:49 in the fourth quarter, even with Butler unavailable.
Spoelstra said Saturday Herro’s limited minutes down the stretch were both injury- and performance-related.
“He felt something — I didn’t even really get the extent of it,” Spoelstra said. “We’ve just got guys grinding, gutting through. This is what the playoffs are about.”
Outside of Butler and Herro, the Heat actually received good news on the injury front for Game 3. Lowry returned to the starting lineup after missing Games 1 and 2 with a nagging hamstring injury, and his impact was immediate, pushing the pace and running the offense.
With the Heat up by 7 and 42.5 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Lowry essentially sealed the game when he stole a lazy inbounds pass from Grant Williams and passed to Strus for an easy layup. The play was Lowry’s fourth — and Miami’s 19th — steal of the game.
“He’s special,” Strus said. “Obviously having him back helped, especially on a night where we lost [Jimmy]. To have his leadership and playoff experience was huge for us to keep us grounded and keep everything positive throughout it all.”
There were plenty of shoutouts to go around for the Butler-less Heat.
After scoring 16 points combined in Games 1 and 2, center Bam Adebayo finally took charge on offense. Adebayo looked as though he was on a mission from the jump, making 6 of his 9 field goal attempts in the first quarter for 12 points. His aggressiveness continued throughout the game, as he attacked the rim and knocked down some impressive mid-range jumpers. Adebayo registered a team-high 31 points on 15-of-22 shooting, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, and 4 steals.
Spoelstra gave Adebayo credit for stabilizing the team during Boston’s comeback efforts in the second half.
“He did his version of what Jimmy does, in terms of doing what’s necessary for the game,” Spoelstra said. “It wasn’t just the scoring. That’s what everybody is going to recognize, but he did so many things in terms of getting us organized, facilitating, playing the point guard for us at times, running the offense in the post through him, and defending, like he always does, against a team that presents a lot of challenges.”
Guard Victor Oladipo also stepped up big time, taking Butler’s place in the lineup after not playing a second in the first half. Strus, an undrafted two-way player turned starter, drilled a critical 3-pointer with 2:16 remaining after the Celtics had just cut the deficit to one. Tucker remained in the starting lineup after exiting Game 2 with a left knee contusion.
For all the talk about the Celtics’ resilience and toughness, the Heat are right there in that regard, too.
“To get far, this doesn’t happen every year, and you never know when you’re going to get back here,” Tucker said. “You want to do everything you can to be there for your team. I told the guys tonight, I didn’t know what I had, but I was going to give them everything I did have, and that’s it. There’s no regrets. There’s no nothing. Leave it all out there and try to get the win.”
Spoelstra acknowledged the tough balancing act when a player is determined to play through injury, but put the onus on the coaching and training staff to handle each situation accordingly. There’s no doubt the Heat will be hurting if Butler — and/or Herro, for that matter — are unable to play in Game 4 Monday. But if Game 3 is any indication, the team certainly won’t fold in his absence.
“Everybody who stepped on the court gave it everything they had,” Tucker said. “We’ve been doing that all year. That’s just part of our culture.”