By TIM REYNOLDS
AP Basketball Writer
A chance to eliminate the Milwaukee Bucks was in his hands, and Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra could have used that moment to draw up some sort of highly technical play with lots of scribbles and squiggles to tell everyone where to go.
He simply pointed to his best player instead.
“Go ahead, man. Take us home,” was Jimmy Butler’s recollection of what Spoelstra said to him in that moment on Wednesday night in Milwaukee. And that’s exactly what he did, again — with a trip to the Eastern Conference semifinals and the rekindling of one of the NBA’s great rivalries as his prize.
Miami vs. New York, again. It’s happening, and Butler is one of the biggest reasons why. He scored 42 points, giving him 188 for the series — more than any player had in a five-game, first-round matchup in more than 30 years — and the eighth-seeded Heat beat the Bucks 128-126 in overtime to oust the NBA’s top overall seed in a stunner.
“I’m just in a groove,” Butler said. “I’m in a rhythm. I’ve been shooting the ball an incredible amount this series, but I feel like they’re all shots that I know I can make.”
He made most of them, shooting 60% in the series. Some were his bread-and-butter — midrange jumpers, or getting to the rim. He made 12 3-pointers on 44% shooting from beyond the arc in the series, easily exceeding his usual output. And one of his shots came with his back almost parallel to the floor, as he caught a lob from Gabe Vincent and somehow got the ball through the basket in the final second of regulation to send Game 5 to overtime.
That was the play where Spoelstra — now just the fourth coach in NBA history to win 100 playoff games with one franchise — went with the highly elaborate plan of “just get the ball to Jimmy,” Vincent said.
“The game plan was simple: Get the ball to Buckets and let him do what he do,” Vincent said.
Say this for the Heat, now just the sixth No. 8 seed to eliminate a No. 1 in this format and the first team to win a series after needing the play-in round to make the playoffs: They embrace when things aren’t easy.
Only two weeks ago, they were 3 1/2 minutes away from missing the playoffs entirely. They were trailing at home to the Chicago Bulls in a play-in game, a misstep or two away from being a No. 1 seed one year to not even making the postseason the next.
But they closed that game on a 15-1 run and prevailed. They rallied from 14 points down in the fourth quarter of Game 4 with a 30-13 run. And in Game 5, it was a 32-16 run to close regulation before getting into overtime and ending Milwaukee’s season.
“You have to be open to what the competition will bring,” Spoelstra said. “But the one thing about our group, because we’ve been in so many of these close games in the fourth quarter, our guys take pride — a lot of pride — in our mental toughness and physical toughness going down the stretch.”
Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo now has seen Miami three times in the last four postseasons. The Heat beat the Bucks in five games in the bubble in 2020 on their way to the NBA Finals. The Bucks swept the rematch in 2021 on their way to the NBA title. And now, the pendulum has swung back to Miami.
“Give them credit. They kicked our butts,” Antetokounmpo said.
And now, it’s Heat-Knicks, again. It’ll be the sixth playoff meeting — they met four straight years from 1997 through 2000, with the wounds of Pat Riley leaving New York for Miami still very fresh, and the Knicks won three of those four matchups. The Heat beat New York in the most recent meeting in 2012.
Much will be said in the coming days about the history between the franchises, and rightly so. Game 1 is at Madison Square Garden in New York on Sunday.
“I don’t care where we play,” Butler said. We just have to beat them four times. … Whether we play in Miami, whether we play in the Garden, whether we play in Rucker Park, we’ve got to win four games.”
That’s a very simple approach. For the Heat, that’s what is working best right now.
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