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BOSTON — Before Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, their team facing elimination, Miami Heat veterans P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris told teammate Jimmy Butler, "Yo, we need 50. We need 50 tonight." Butler did not say a word in response. He didn't need to. He only nodded before going about his business.
"I was like, 'Oh, yeah, he's about to play. He's locked in,' " Tucker said.
Butler scored 19 points on 32 shots in the previous two games, both losses that pushed his Heat to the brink on their way back to Boston. The 32-year-old was playing through a right knee injury that sidelined him for Game 5 of their first-round series and the second half of Game 4 in this series. Miami looked cooked, facing a Celtics team with youth on their side and a bevy of defensive weapons to stifle Butler.
Whatever reserves were left in his well, Butler poured into a masterful performance. He finished three points shy of 50, and it felt as though he would've granted Tucker's request if the game called for it. His 47 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and four steals were enough to win, 111-103, and force a Game 7 in Miami on Sunday.
"I think I did decent throughout the game," Butler said.
Kyle Lowry countered, "It was f***ing incredible," before begging the NBA not to fine him. "To do it on this stage, Game 6, win or go home, do or die, I wouldn't want to lace them up with anyone else but this guy."
Butler scored or assisted 24 of the Heat's 29 first-quarter points to stake them to a seven-point lead that left the Celtics and their fans staggering from the start. He scored cutting into open spaces, spinning into the lane, pulling up from above the break, spotting up in the corner and fading away from mid-range — all against a set defense that was allowing a scant 84.2 points per 100 halfcourt possessions in the series.
"We didn't match his intensity," Celtics coach Ime Udoka repeatedly conceded.
For every Boston run, Butler had an answer. When Jayson Tatum's nine straight points drew the Celtics within 32-31 four minutes into the second quarter, Butler drilled his third 3-pointer and barreled his way to the basket, drawing a foul and pushing Miami's advantage back to six. When the Celtics took the lead in the waning moments before halftime, he found Bam Adebayo for a momentum-killing dunk and hustled his way back to the free-throw line, ensuring his Heat would enter the break with confidence in a 48-46 lead.
Butler had no gear but fifth in the second half, either. His steal and subsequent three-point play gave Miami a six-point advantage midway through the third quarter, and the lead hovered around there into the fourth.
"He played like his back was on the wall and he had an amazing game," said Celtics wing Jaylen Brown, who Butler helped limit to just two second-half points, "and we just had no answers for him tonight."
Derrick White made a 3-pointer to bring Boston within 82-78 eight seconds into the final frame, only for Butler to respond with another three-point play. A 7-0 run drew the Celtics within two at the eight-minute mark, but Butler flushed another triple on the other end. Four more points by Boston cut its deficit to 92-91, and a Butler floater gave Miami a three-point cushion and him the sixth 40-point playoff game of his career.
The Celtics made consecutive 3-pointers to steal a 97-94 lead, and Butler found Lowry for a game-tying 3. The two teams traded free throws before Butler slashed into Boston's top-rated defense for his third finish through a foul in the half. Miami would not relinquish the resulting 102-99 lead. His masterpiece would not be complete before a shot clock-beating jumper and the last two of his 11 free throws padded the margin.
"Jimmy Butler is a great competitor; he really is," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "You can mis-define him in a lot of different ways, but his competitive will is as high as anybody that has played this game."
The four 3-pointers Butler made on the night were more than he had hit all regular season and matched his output in a 45-point effort against the Atlanta Hawks in the first round. It was hard to imagine Butler would ever match the 40-point triple-double he logged over 45 minutes of a Game 3 win in the 2020 NBA Finals and impossible to think he could do it on a balky knee, but Friday night was every bit as heroic, if not more.
It was reminiscent of the greatest game of LeBron James' career — a 45-point flex for the Heat when facing an elimination Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals in Boston. Miami finished the job at home 10 years ago, and Butler understands this performance is no more than afterthought without a win in Game 7.
"Rest, ice, massage, all of that good stuff," Butler said of his preparation for Sunday night. "The same thing every single day. We do it a little bit tonight, some more tomorrow, then before the game, be ready to rock."
With that, Butler limped off the dais, bound for Miami with the weight of having to do it all over in 45 hours.
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