After his 41 points in Game 1, Yahoo Sports’ Vince Goodwill called Jimmy Butler the best player left in the NBA playoffs. He might have been right. Butler is averaging just a shade below Luka Doncic in scoring at 29.8 points per game, but he’s been more efficient, shooting 54% from the field and getting to the line nearly nine times a night.
But let’s not forget that one of the reasons Butler is on this postseason pedestal is because the Celtics have already eliminated two former MVP’s and Finals MVP’s in this postseason. And objectively, Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo are better than Butler, but all of that is inconsequential because it’s been Boston that has handled all of them in 2022.
In Game 2, Butler again added another solid performance to his growing playoff resume: 29 points on 11-of-18 shooting with 6 rebounds and 3 assists. Individually, he’s been terrific, but on Thursday night, just like his other All-Star predecessors, Butler and his team suffered the same fate that the Nets and Bucks have over the last week.
With KD, Giannis, and now Butler, the Celtics have, for the most part, tried to use single coverage on him in order to stay at home on the four other players on the floor. In Game 2, smaller defenders like Payton Pritchard and even Jaylen Brown couldn’t match his physicality.
Enter Marcus Smart.
Per NBA.com’s Stats, Smart was the primary cover on Butler in Game 2, guarding him 32 of 63 Heat possessions. Against the DPoY, Butler mustered only five shots. And while he made four with an assist, Smart clearly had an impact and was a large reason why the Celtics head back to Boston with home court advantage and a 1-1 split in the series.
“As a Defensive Player of the Year, night in, night out, taking that matchup and being able to play on both sides of the ball, that’s crucial for them…you have to respect him and what he does,” Butler said of Smart after the game.
What Smart does is make Butler’s life miserable.
“It’s tough. Jimmy’s a warrior, man. Jimmy’s been doing this a long time,” Smart said of going up against the former Bull, Timberwolf, and 76er. “He understands the game. He understands his strengths. He understands his team’s strengths. So when you got a guy that has an IQ like Jimmy, it’s always going to be a tough matchup.”
As smart as Butler is on offense, Smart is on defense. Butler isn’t much of a three-point shooter, so Smart dives under screens above the break. Butler initiates contact to get to the free throw line, so Smart tries to stay in front of him as much as possible. It’s one of those matchups that you know Smart enjoys getting up for.
“It’s a good one. I love going up against Jimmy any time I can. As a defensive player (and) as a competitor, he’s going to make you work and he’s going to make you better. We knew it was going to be tough. My assignment was to make everything tough on him,” Smart said.
The pressure of Smart’s singular D on Butler should continue to have a ripple effect. For three series now, it’s been a luxury for head coach Ime Udoka to be able to cover a team’s best player with one defender — Tatum on Durant, Horford and Williams on Antetokounmpo, and now, Smart on Butler. Heading into Game 3, Butler knows he needs help.
“I think I gotta do a better job of getting everybody else involved, if I’m being brutally honest. I gotta find that fine medium, that fine line between when to be aggressive and when to make sure that I can get guys open,” Butler said. “Basically, I gotta do Kyle’s job, make sure guys are in spots where they can be comfortable and be their most successful. That’s on me. I don’t think that’s on Spo. I don’t think that’s on Bam. I think that’s my job because I got the ball a lot of the time to make sure everybody’s comfortable in the shots they need to have.”
Through two games, Butler has scored 70 points. His fellow starters have only mustered 74 combined. If there’s a perfect balance that Butler is trying to achieve, rest assured that Smart will be there to disrupt it.