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    With Butler at another level, Tatum determined to raise game

    May 19, 2022
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    Jimmy Butler and the top-seeded Heat try to make it 2-0 against Jayson Tatum and the second-seeded Celtics.
    PHOTO: AP

    MIAMI — Jimmy Butler doesn't like being a called a scorer.

    Never mind that the moniker seems appropriate. He's averaging nearly 30 points per game in this postseason, has reached the 40-point mark three times in his last 10 games after having zero such regular season games since 2017, and carried the Miami Heat over the Boston Celtics in Game One of the Eastern Conference finals.

    But say "scorer" to him, and he will scoff in disdain.

    "I've been a quote-unquote scorer at other points in my career, and it didn't work out too well for me," Butler said.

    See Curry overcomes slow start as Warriors overpower Mavs in Game 1

    Things have been working out just fine so far in this postseason for Butler and the top-seeded Heat, who'll look to take a 2-0 lead in the East title series when they play host to the second-seeded Celtics again on Thursday night (Friday, Manila time). It won't be easy: The Celtics are 3-0 after losses in these playoffs, winning those bounce-back games by an average of 14.7 points and getting two of those victories on the road.

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    The Celtics are hoping to have defensive player of the year Marcus Smart (mid-foot sprain) back for Game Two, listing him as probable for Thursday night. Boston was also without forward Al Horford (health and safety protocols) for Game One — he is doubtful for Game Two. And coach Ime Udoka was sick on Wednesday with a non-COVID illness.

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    "We have a lot of confidence," Celtics center Daniel Theis said Wednesday as his team gathered for a film session.

    The Heat have some injury issues as well: Point guard Kyle Lowry will miss his eighth game of the playoffs with a hamstring issue. His replacement, Gabe Vincent — the Heat are 7-0 in these playoffs when he starts — is questionable with a hamstring issue of his own, as is fellow starting guard Max Strus.

    Game One was a 118-107 loss for the Celtics on Tuesday night, though Boston pointed out after the game that the combined scores of the first, second and fourth quarters added up to Celtics 93, Heat 79.

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    That pesky third quarter, however, counted.

    A 39-14 romp by Miami in those 12 minutes — Butler had 17 points in that quarter alone, outscoring the Celtics by himself — turned the whole game around, and the Heat never saw their lead trimmed to less than nine in the final quarter.

    "Expect us to play better," said Boston forward Jayson Tatum, who had six turnovers in that pivotal quarter. "Expect myself to play a lot better."

    In other words, he's expecting to get to a higher level.

    Butler is already there.

    He's averaging 29.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 2.3 steals in these playoffs on 53.5 percent shooting. Since the NBA began charting each of those statistics, nobody has finished a postseason averaging so much in each category while shooting that well. And Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has a simple reason why Butler is in this space.

    "Heightened attention to detail," Spoelstra said. "But again, I don't want to get in a long dissertation about it. If you're driven by competition, and the stakes get raised, you're going to raise your level of play. It's not about trying to get bigger numbers. It's about doing what's required. And this level is high level, this competition, and he senses it, and he knows it. He feels it."

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    Butler went 17 for 18 from the foul line in Game One. The only player to make, or take, more free throws in a game against Boston this season was Kevin Durant — who was 18 for 20 for Brooklyn in Game Two of the first-round series between the Celtics and Nets.

    "He's comfortable," Boston's Jaylen Brown said of Butler. "He's very comfortable right now, and we've got to do a better job of breaking that rhythm that he's in. That's it. We've got to take the challenge."

    Butler's last 40-point game in the regular season came on Jan. 25, 2017, for Chicago — three franchises and more than five years ago. But he's had five such games in the playoffs since coming to Miami, the first two coming in the bubble two years ago when he carried the Heat to the NBA Finals. The other three have been in the last month, when he's carrying the Heat again, despite his insistence that he's not carrying anyone.

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    "I don't care if it's a big stage or a little stage or who is watching," Butler said. "I do what I do for my family, for my people, for my organization and for my teammates. That's it. Doesn't matter if it's a big stage, home or away. I know why I do what I do."

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    Jimmy Butler and the top-seeded Heat try to make it 2-0 against Jayson Tatum and the second-seeded Celtics.
    PHOTO: AP
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