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The Long Two: Jimmy Butler takes over as Warriors slow Luka

There’s no one else quite like Jimmy Butler, who helped give the Heat a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals and solidified his place as a superstar. Plus: How the Warriors overwhelmed the Mavericks on both ends of the floor.

Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals began the way a skeptic of the Miami Heat might have expected. The Celtics jumped on Miami in the first half, mucking up an already shaky halfcourt offense while decisively attacking the gaps of a defense that had completely stifled its opposition through the first two rounds of the playoffs. They turned stops into transition buckets, used multiple creators to generate open shots and forced Miami’s limited playmakers to create inefficient offense off the dribble.

Boston, hardened from a brutal seven-game series against the reigning NBA champs, looked like it might have already played its toughest series, while the Heat were learning for the first time how it felt to go up against a real championship contender.

How Jimmy Butler flipped the script on the Celtics in the second half of Game 1

For the better part of the first half, the Celtics did what they wanted on offense while the Heat were left gasping for breathing room. Miami began the game defensively by loading up on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown at the top of the key, “gapping” off of shooters one pass away to stay near the foul line and clog driving lanes.

The issue with that strategy wasn’t so much in its conception as in the execution. Miami heavily shaded toward drives but didn’t actually cut them off, which took away neither the drive nor the kickout 3. Tatum slashed into the teeth of the defense at will, attacking quickly off the catch and off the dribble to finish at the rim or find open teammates:

The Heat even tried trapping Tatum in the pick-and-roll, but his improved passing in those situations effectively took that option off the table. At other times, Miami would either overhelp in non-threatening situations or fail to rotate behind the play when teammates pushed out on the perimeter.

Boston decisively took advantage of the Heat’s miscues with 17 first-half assists on 26 made buckets (compared to Miami’s nine assists on 21 makes), and the Celtics shot 16-of-20 at the rim against one of the NBA’s best paint-protecting teams, according to Cleaning the Glass. For a team like Miami, which subsists on its execution and attention to detail, those breakdowns were more than uncharacteristic — they constituted a borderline identity crisis.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the Heat rediscovered themselves. Miami blitzed Boston with a 39-14 third quarter, and the Celtics never regained control of the rope. After parading to the rim in the first half, Boston shot just 3-of-12 in the restricted area in the second, and while that rim protection came at the expense of 20 Celtic 3-point attempts, most of those looks came either off the dribble or from relatively limited shooters.

Miami’s help defenders held their ground in the gaps instead of sidestepping drivers, and the Heat were sharper with their on- and off-ball switching when they employed that strategy. That allowed them to dial up the pressure on Tatum and force other Celtics to initiate the offense, which resulted in six turnovers from Tatum and just 90 points per 100 possessions for Boston over the game’s final 24 minutes.

Getting stops on defense created easy buckets in transition, which in turn allowed the Heat to set their defense and make Boston work for buckets, and so the cycle went. On offense, they made quick, sound decisions with the ball, attacking gaps in the defense and keeping possessions moving until they found an advantage.

Most importantly, Jimmy Butler was by far the best player on the floor after Tatum dominated the first 24 minutes, and no sequence typified that shift more than a pair of steals from Butler coming out of a Boston timeout to punctuate a 22-2 run. Knowing that Tatum expected him to sit in the gap against the pick-and-roll, Butler jumped a no-look pass to Brown on the left wing for a layup on the other end, then immediately swiped an entry pass to Robert Williams on the next possession to give the Heat their largest lead of the game to that point:

There’s no other NBA star quite like Butler, who impacts every area of the game while playing with the tenacity of a far less talented player. Superstars tend to dominate in one or two specific ways, and it’s the job of their supporting casts to mask their deficiencies or simply shield them from some of the game’s more arduous aspects.

Butler, however, embraces that grunt work and does whatever the team needs to win on a given night. That allows the Heat to deploy him in a variety of ways, which gives the Heat immense flexibility in who they can play alongside him. Butler doesn’t need a specific kind of roster construction around him, because he can scale his own game into almost any kind of role.

Nominally, he plays small forward for Miami but often serves as the team’s primary offensive initiator. When P.J. Tucker briefly went down with an ankle injury in Game 1, Butler tied small-ball lineups together as a power forward. This postseason, the Heat have asked him to be a high-volume scorer, though Butler could just as easily devote himself to being an elite playmaker, defender, screener, rebounder or cutter.

On Tuesday, he was all of those things, finishing with 27 points on 8-of-11 shooting, with four rebounds, three assists, three steals, three blocks and one turnover… in just the second half. His game-high 41 points will deservedly grab attention, but they shouldn’t overshadow how much his passing opened up Miami’s offense, or the way he changed the game’s tenor with his defensive activity, or his willingness to attack the offensive glass and screen teammates open. Butler also bullied his way into 18 free-throw attempts, recorded a game-high six deflections and ran nearly three miles in his 41 minutes of action. Most tellingly, Miami outscored Boston by 25 with Butler on the floor and got outscored by 14 without him.

Butler has already put together a better all-around game against the Celtics than either Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokounmpo did in the first two rounds, though he did have the benefit of facing a depleted version team that didn’t hone in on him to the same degree they did on Durant and Giannis. Both of those things will likely change as the series wears on. Butler will find it increasingly difficult to dominate once Al Horford (currently in the league’s health and safety protocols) and Marcus Smart (out with a sprained foot) return and Ime Udoka designs a more Butler-oriented gameplan.

Still, his versatility on both ends makes Butler practically impossible to neutralize, and the Heat are better equipped to punish an overloading defense than the shorthanded Nets or Bucks were. Simply plugging Smart and Horford back into the lineup won’t solve every issue Boston faced in Game 1, and Thursday night will require the Celtics to find answers for a star whose game is well beyond reproach.

Contrasting offensive approaches headline Warriors-Mavs

The Warriors’ on-court ethos is built upon the idea that the power of the collective is greater than that of any individual, and Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals played out according to that principle. A 112-87 rout of the Mavericks wasn’t just the product of Golden State’s superior shooting, gameplan and execution; it was a reminder of how differently the two teams approach offense and why the Warriors, at their best, can be so difficult to guard. That Steph Curry could lead his team in scoring with just 21 points while beating one of the NBA’s stingiest defenses by 25 is a testament not only to Golden State’s talent but the way in which it deploys all of its weapons.

After a series against the tenacious and disruptive Grizzlies, the Warriors looked much more comfortable working against Dallas’ more conservative defense. The Mavericks eventually shut down Phoenix’s offense in the second round with a sound scheme, rock-solid rotations and acute attention to detail, but they don’t pester their opponents on or off the ball the way a team like Memphis does, which is essential to slowing down Golden State’s unscripted motion offense.

The Warriors moved around the floor unencumbered in Game 1, and the Mavs didn’t seem prepared for the amount of ground they’d need to cover on each possession to keep up. Golden State didn’t need to target specific defenders in ball screens or isolations, because making the Mavericks chase multiple threats around the court for entire possessions eventually discombobulated them just the same.

It’s here that the contrast between the two teams is most stark. Where Dallas’ offense can only really begin in two or three places, the Warriors run an unpredictable system in which every player is a constant threat. It’s the kind of system that leaves room for Jordan Poole to blossom into an elite scorer, Otto Porter and Andrew Wiggins to slash through gaps in the defense, Draymond Green to orchestrate from the elbows and Klay Thompson to constantly weave through off-ball screens — all while Steph Curry sprints around the floor, pulling defenders toward him like a magnet. Every weapon amplifies the others rather than coming at their expense, and Golden State is hardly ever stationary while the Mavericks almost always are.

Dallas was at its best Wednesday night when it forced the Warriors to rotate by making multiple passes after generating an initial advantage. But too often, the Mavericks looked to attack one-on-one while others stood around waiting for kickout passes. Golden State was content letting the Mavs work in isolation because it stagnated their offense and allowed the Warriors to load up on the ball, bring extra bodies when necessary and still rotate to shooters when Luka Dončić drew multiple defenders. Dončić saw a crowd every time he drove to the basket, and Andrew Wiggins did as good a job as his primary defender as could have reasonably been expected.

The result was one of Dončić and the Mavs’ worst offensive showings of the playoffs. Luka finished with just 20 points on 8-of-16 shooting, with more turnovers than assists for the first time this postseason, and Dallas scored just 92 points per 100 possessions in the game. Because the Maverick role players aren’t real threats to create with the ball or move without it, the Warriors could hone in on Dallas’ three primary playmakers, and when one of the smartest defenses in basketball knows what’s coming, there are only so many ways to create open looks.

Golden State also kept the Mavericks off-balance by showing them different coverages over the course of the night, including conventional pick-and-roll defense, switching, trapping, 2-3 zone and a box-and-1. When the Warriors didn’t switch, Wiggins doggedly stayed attached to Dončić’s hip, got into his space on drives and forced him into help without committing cheap fouls. Kevon Looney (who was outstanding on both ends) struggled to contain the shifty Jalen Brunson in isolation, but mostly held his own against the slower Dončić and bothered him several times at the rim. Draymond Green wasn’t quite his usual disruptive self but still served as a vital backstop at the rim who subtly dragged down the efficiency of Dallas’ looks.

A passing glance at the Mavericks’ shot chart might suggest they were merely unlucky to shoot 11-of-43 (26 percent, not including garbage time) from 3, and, to an extent, they were. But when those 3-pointers are coming at the expense of layups, the math will often work out in the opponent’s favor. Better shooting would undoubtedly have helped Dallas’ cause, but the bigger issue was a failure to reliably generate looks from anywhere else on the floor.

Almost all of the Mavs’ 2-point attempts (and many of their 3s) were hurried, contested or both, and while giving up almost 50 3s in a game does leave the Warriors vulnerable to an offensive avalanche, forcing that many triples and limiting the rest of the court almost ensured that only aberrational 3-point shooting could beat them. (Golden State also used Dallas’ missed 3s to fuel its transition attack, though they still left quite a bit on the table in that area).

The Mavs will shoot better from deep over the rest of the series, and Jason Kidd will find counters to the Warriors’ defense and answers for their offense, as he has all postseason. Dallas had some encouraging passing sequences in Game 1, and Dončić taking three catch-and-shoot 3s within the flow of the offense was a positive sign for a team still figuring out how to balance its three playmaking threats.

Still, the Mavericks need to find ways to create easier looks in the rest of the series. Luka will hit more tough shots and set up more catch-and-shoot 3s than almost any player alive, but Golden State is clearly well-equipped to whittle down his scoring efficiency, and relying so heavily on one player against this kind of two-way force might only get a team so far.

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