In mid-April, Jimmy Butler said in regards to the playoffs: "All we got to do is get there. We get there, us as a team, I'll handle the rest."
The Miami Heat were 31-28 at the time, hanging on to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. Miami ended up closing the season 9-3, grabbing the sixth seed and avoiding the Play-In tournament in the process.
The reward? A rematch with the revenge-hungry Milwaukee Bucks who the Heat dumped in the second round of the playoff in the Bubble.
The road will be tough but Miami got there. Can Butler now handle the rest?
It's gone almost criminally under the radar how good Butler has been this season. He's arguably playing the best basketball of his career.
Butler finished the year averaging 21.5 points and posted career-highs in rebounds at 6.9 per game, assists in 7.1 per game and led the league with a career-best 2.1 per game. And he did it all efficiently, shooting a career-best 49.7 percent from the field.
Butler has always been a great two-way player, but the numbers indicate that this may be his best work yet. According to NBA Stats, with Butler on the floor, the Heat scored 112.1 points per 100 possessions this season. When he sat, the offence struggled, scoring just 107.1 points per 100.
For context, Miami had the equivalent of a bottom-five offence when Butler sat.
Defensively, his impact was on an even larger scale. With Butler on the floor, the Heat held teams to just 106.9 points per 100 possessions. When he was off the floor, teams scored 113.0 points per 100. That's the difference between the Heat having the second-best defence in the league (less than a point behind the first-place Lakers' 106.8 defensive rating) and the 22nd ranked defence in the league.
Simply put, Butler's importance on both ends of the floor couldn't be overstated. It's a large reason why he should make an All-NBA team and should also be considered to make one of the two All-Defense teams.
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As the Heat get set to take on the Bucks in Game 1 on Saturday, we're reminded how good Butler was in last year's clash. Butler averaged 23.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game in the series while shooting 53.2 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from three. It's hard to think that Butler is playing better now than he was in the Bubble when they eliminated Milwaukee in just five games, but he might very well be.
What makes things even more interesting is that the Bucks, who won the season series 2-1 over the Heat, haven't seen this version of Butler yet this year.
"We all have a great feel for their group, their team," Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer told the media, talking about the Heat on Tuesday. "The fact that we haven't played them three times with Jimmy, I guess you don't have that footage. But there's a ton of respect for Jimmy Butler and what he does, how he plays, how he impacts their offence, impacts their defence.
"It's always great to see yourself against an opponent, but I think the familiarity with these two teams is pretty high, pretty significant, including with Jimmy Butler."
Miami and Milwaukee might be setting up to give us a classic first-round series. It feels like either prediction could be right and it could go either way. But if we learned anything from Butler last year in the bubble, it's this: Miami will get there as a team, and he'll do the rest.
If the Heat have any shot at knocking off the Bucks again, it will be because Butler made sure to hold up his end of the bargain.
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