Butler leads Heat to second ECF in three years

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PHILADELPHIA — The Miami Heat are headed to the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in three years after closing out the Philadelphia 76ers 99-90 in Game 6 of their second-round series on Thursday night.

As has been the case throughout the series, it was Jimmy Butler who led the way when his team needed him the most. After going just 3-for-10 in the first half, Butler got rolling in the third quarter, scoring 14 of his 32 points while carrying his team across the finish line.

Max Strus picked up the offensive slack for the second game in a row, pouring in 16 of his 20 points in the first half while setting the tone for a Heat team that came into confident that they would knock down shots after going just 14-for-65 from beyond the arc during losses in Games 3 and 4 in Philadelphia.

Joel Embiid‘s injuries were the main storylines, both coming into and during the series. But it was Butler’s overall performance that rose to the forefront over the last week and a half as Embiid, who was also dealing with a ligament injury in his thumb as well an orbital fracture, struggled to put up the same type of MVP-caliber performances that defined his regular season.

After a shaky Game 1 where he went just 5-for-16 from the field, Butler found his rhythm and pushed his game close to the level he performed at during the playoffs in 2020. Butler had 73 points combined in Games 3 and 4 and racked up 23 points, nine rebounds and six assists during a crucial Game 5 win on Tuesday night.

“More than anything, my teammates, my coaches, this entire organization, really believe in the player that I am,” Butler said after Game 5, explaining why he has repeatedly been able to raise the level of his game during his three years in Miami. “The player that I’ve become over the years. So they allow me to be me here.

“They allow me to just hoop and not say too much. Good, bad, indifferent, they rocking with me, And I think that’s the best feeling to have, especially right now in the playoffs. And I think that’s the reason coach Pat [Riley] brought me here and we are where we are.”

Now the Heat await the winner of the Milwaukee BucksBoston Celtics series. The Bucks have a 3-2 series lead. Game 6 of that series is Friday night in Milwaukee.

A Bucks-Heat matchup would mark the third straight season the two teams met each other in the playoffs. The Heat beat the Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2020 before the Bucks swept the Heat in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in 2021.

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