DENVER — Around 9 p.m. Saturday, Jimmy Butler was at 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 had gone wrong for him and the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the NBA Finals just two days prior, and what he could do about it for Game 2.
Earlier in the day Saturday, Butler told the media he planned to try out an escape room in Denver that night and do “normal stuff” — that is something he likes to do.
But when it came down to it, Butler did not run off to an escape room. He escaped to the gym instead, joined by his longtime trainer Chris Brickley.
“He just likes figuring things out,” Brickley told ESPN. “When he’s making those short shots, everything is different. So we worked on it.”
Butler spent 30 minutes taking shots just to get his touch back.
“He needs to see the ball go in,” Brickley said. “The games that he hasn’t done that [before the game], he hasn’t played well. He’s big on that. It’s a mental thing.”
This is what Butler and the Heat have been doing during the eighth-seeded Heat’s run to the NBA Finals — figuring out what needs to be done to win and then going out and doing it.
Butler finished with 21 points in the Heat’s 111-108 win against the Denver Nuggets on Sunday night at Ball Arena to even these Finals at a game apiece. But it’s how he did it — being more aggressive at driving into the paint, taking 14 shots from inside 18 feet and drawing five free throws — that mattered.
Compared to some of his other offensive heroics during these playoffs, it was a rather pedestrian stat line for Butler. But it was enough, and that’s why the Heat have evened these Finals as the series heads back to Miami for Game 3 (Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC).
“We’re so focused in 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’re not worried about anybody else. That’s how it’s been all year long, and that’s not going to change.”
Who the Heat are is a team that keeps figuring out how to win games and series against teams that are heavily favored, no matter how gut-wrenching a loss they’ve just weathered (see Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals), how many player injuries they’ve endured (Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo) or how talented a superstar they’ve matched up with.
In this series, that superstar is two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, who was sublime in recording his 15th career triple-double in the playoffs in Game 1.
Jokic controlled every facet of the series opener with brilliant playmaking and passing, finishing with 14 assists as the Heat sent multiple defenders and threw zone defenses at him. He took five shots before the fourth quarter, then started scoring 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 has struggled when Jokic is not able to command its offense with his usual aplomb.
During the regular season, Denver went 3-7 when Jokic had fewer than six assists. As a team, the Nuggets had just six passes to 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 the Heat had simply chosen to turn Jokic into a scorer Sunday to take away his playmaking.
“That’s a ridiculous — that’s the untrained eye that says something like that,” Spoelstra said. “This guy is an incredible 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 scorer.’ That’s not how they play. They have so many different actions that just get you compromised.
“We have to focus on what we do. We try to do things the hard way, and he requires you to do many things the hard way. He has our full respect.”
Respect is one thing. Strategy and adjustments are another. Miami made a lot of those Sunday night (after Spoelstra had said “scheme is not going to save us” following Miami’s Game 1 loss), inserting Kevin Love into its starting lineup for Caleb Martin and trying to disrupt 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 points during the playoffs and 13-1 when he scores fewer than 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 get the opportunity to turn the ball over and get out into the open floor, I feel as though we have to do that, and we did a decent job of that today.”