Good morning. Let’s basketball.
Fun fact about my ever-smoothing sportsblogger brain: as I watched Jimmy Butler take over Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night, I thought to myself, “Self, what if modern Heat Culture is simply just Jimmy Culture?” And then I thought, “Self, didn’t you use ‘Jimmy Culture’ as a newsletter headline already?” This is where the ever-smoothing sportsblogger brain comes in — I have written so many damn words about basketball on the internet over the past 17 years that
a) original thoughts are harder to come back these days, and
b) it’s impossible to remember most of that work.
But ‘Jimmy Culture’ seemed like something I had seen, or written, or probably both. So I searched my email archives as I often do, and sure enough. Exactly one year ago to the day:
Where does Jimmy Butler end and Heat Culture begin? That’s the question I find myself pondering as Butler completely takes over an Eastern Conference Finals game in the third quarter, ripping the ball from Jayson Tatum, getting to the line, jumping passing lanes, hitting fadeaways. Heat Culture is high energy, personal accountability, max effort, cerebral, skilled. Jimmy Butler is high energy, personal accountability, max effort, cerebral, skilled. It’s a perfect marriage.
Exactly one year ago, Butler did roughly the same s—t to the same opponent. Dan Devine noticed this too. Heat Culture is synonymous with Jimmy Butler, and while he didn’t have a 40-spot this time around, his fingerprints were all over the Heat’s Game 1 win. The line: 35 points on 12/25 shooting, 7 assists, 5 rebounds and 6 steals.
Regrettably, that highlight reel leaves out the best part of Butler’s performance: Kevin Harlan’s reaction to Butler’s dagger three with 1:02 left.
In the fourth quarter, there was no question what the Heat were trying to do. Butler had eight shots in the period. The Celtics … the Celtics are so good, but there are always questions as to whether or not they realize it. To wit, Jayson Tatum, the team’s best player and one of the six best players in the world right now, took zero.
Yes, Jayson Tatum took zero shots in the fourth quarter.
The Heat defense, which didn’t really perform at a high level overall, keyed into Tatum and Butler jumped passing lanes per usual. Bam Adebayo was exceptional, the undersung two-way star of this Heat era. The other critical factor in this game was an offensive explosion in the third quarter from Miami: 46 points in 26 possessions against a top-3 regular season defense. Max Strus had three three-pointers in that, proving the adage that Duncan Robinson was merely a symptom of Heat Culture, not the cause.
If Heat history and last season’s ECF are any guide, Boston will win Game 2 and this will remain a competitive series. But the Celtics will suffer deeply from losing Game 1 eventually, and in the NBA playoffs all it takes is for a few plays to go in a weird direction and even titans can be on the ropes. Ask the Bucks.
There was a lot to like from the Celtics here, but mostly hitting the scouting report isn’t going to cut it against this opponent. The defense can’t have 12-minute lapses and the offense can’t concede to Miami’s work to wall off Tatum. And this, frankly, is where questions about coaching come in. One wrinkle that I don’t think has been discussed enough given the focus on Joe Mazzulla — who has been around for all of these battles with Miami — is that his staff is relatively new to this rivalry. The entire staff of assistant coaches behind Mazzulla either came to Boston or were promoted to the bench when Ime Udoka was hired just under two years ago. So they were all here for last season’s Finals run, but that’s it.
Mazzulla has been in Boston longer and seen it all. But the players — Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Al Horford — have been here longer than the coaches. Brad Stevens, of course, was here for all of that and is surely meeting with Mazzulla daily during the playoffs. But he’s not in the huddles, on the sidelines, in the locker room at halftime.
It’s a pretty odd dynamic that might impact a willingness to make bold moves on the part of the staff and might have some trust implications. It’s impossible to know for sure, but it’s a wrinkle worth considering as the Celtics struggle to start off series the right way this postseason.
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