Tonight, we find out if the Miami Heat are back for real

Jimmy Butler and co.
Jimmy Butler and co.
Photo: AP

Other than allowing a 40-point fourth quarter, the Miami Heat displayed one of their most dominant end-to-end performances of the season on Mother’s Day. Tonight, in the second leg of their “Baseball Series” with the Boston Celtics, the Heat face the Boston-based club again at TD Garden, which will air on TNT. The playoff implications are massive, as the Celtics have lost Jaylen Brown — who hasn’t played since May 2 — for the season with a wrist injury.

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Following Sunday’s 130-124 win over the C’s, the Heat are now 1-1 against Boston while sitting at 37-31 and in sixth place in the Eastern Conference standings — a full two games ahead of the 35-33 Celtics, whose Play-In standing rides primarily on this game. A Heat win would clinch a top-six playoff spot, meaning the seven seed would be the Celtics best-case scenario, and they’d remain in the Play-In. Save for their 127-113 loss to the Dallas Mavericks, which was without Jimmy Butler; the Heat are peaking at an ideal time, winning five of their last six and five in a row with a healthy Butler.

Even with a disappointing regular season, Butler has been the instrumental difference for the team, which offers them a chance against any team over the course of a series, so long as he can stand up (or, at least, lean over a nearby table). Of the Heat’s 68 games so far this season, Butler’s played in 50. The team is 6-12 without him and 29-19 with him. He’s got a career-high offensive rating of 126, is averaging 22 points, 7 assists and rebounds, and a league-high 2.1 steals per game> He’s got a personal-best 7.5 box-plus-minus, is a plus 4.9 per 100 possessions while on the court, and a plus 10.6 net per 100 possessions. He was so dominant that, despite only taking one shot in the first half against the Celtics on Sunday, it was clear that Jimmy had been leading the way and making plays for others while not trying to force his way into the action. He finished the game with 26 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds, and two steals while shooting 9-for-14 — even sinking his first three in 15 attempts.

Heat beat reporter Ira Winderman also notes in the Sun-Sentinel that the Heat had been tied for third in player-games lost due to COVID-19 protocols this season:

According to the tracking by Fansure through Sunday’s games, the Celtics led the league in player games lost to COVID-19 protocols, at 167, followed by the Dallas Mavericks at 118, and then the Heat and Toronto Raptors both at 116 … measured from Jan. 10, when a Heat game in Boston was postponed due to the contact tracing of several Heat players, the Heat from that period forward stand second in the league in player games lost to health and safety protocols, at their 116, behind only the Celtics’ 141 over that span.

Now, with only Victor Oladipo still out, the mostly healthy Heat are not just back on the floor, but playing their best ball since winning 11 of 12 games between February 18 and March 16. Even without Oladipo, the guard play has improved in their recent 5-1 stretch. Kendrick Nunn’s averaging 16 points on 51-percent shooting during the run. Duncan Robinson is over 14 points per game while shooting 48 percent from three, which is where he takes over 80 percent of his field-goal attempts. Goran Dragić is at 16 points and 4.8 assists on 43/42/86 shooting splits over his last six. And since Tyler Herro’s return, he’s averaging 19.5 points on 68/73/100 splits… albeit in a two-game sample size.

It’s the game of the season for the Heat. But moreover, it’s a game that would lock in a much-needed rest away from the Play-In if they do what they’re supposed to do, which they’ve struggled with this season. But with the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks still looming this week, it’d be wise to handle their business tonight.

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