MIAMI — Jimmy Butler fell to the floor and released a cathartic yell as he converted a layup and was fouled with 2:17 remaining in the fourth quarter of Friday’s Eastern Conference play-in game, giving the Heat a lead over the Bulls they would not relinquish.
About a minute later in the game, Butler made the pass that led to a 3-pointer from Max Strus, extending Miami’s lead during a dominant stretch run from the Heat in a 102-91 victory to clinch the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Butler and Strus each scored 31 points and the Heat outscored the Bulls 15-1 over the final three minutes of the game.
“That’s what my team needed me to do,” Butler said. “Find a way.”
Miami advanced into the playoffs with the victory and earned a first-round matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks, the NBA’s top overall seed. Game 1 begins Sunday in Milwaukee.
“This week, with two games — it feels like we’re in Round 2 already,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And we just earned the right now to start the playoffs.”
The Heat led by 14 points in the first quarter and had a double-digit lead in the third, then the Bulls took the lead heading into the fourth quarter. But with five minutes remaining, the score was tied, putting the Heat in a position they have been familiar with this season.
Miami played in a league-high 54 clutch games this season and won 32 of them while the Bulls won 15, the fewest of any of the 20 teams to make the postseason.
“Nothing new for us,” said Strus, who with Butler became the first pair of Heat teammates with 30 points in a playoff or play-in game since LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in 2013. “Those are situations we’re used to and have been in all year.”
Although Bam Adebayo went 1-for-9 from the field for eight points, Butler credited him for being a catalyst for the Heat’s defensive effort, especially down the stretch. Chicago shot 5-for-12 when contested by Adebayo, including 2-for-5 in the fourth quarter.
“I feel like I had a big impact on that game even though my shots weren’t falling,” Adebayo said.
This will be the fourth time the Heat and Bucks will meet in the playoffs; the previous three times the winner has gone on to the NBA Finals. The Bucks won the 2021 NBA championship after beating the Heat in the first round and Miami won a championship in 2013 after a first-round victory against the Bucks.
“You’re talking about an MVP in [Giannis Antetokounmpo], all the shooting, how together they are, they’ve been together for a while,” Butler said. “It’s going to be tough; it is. Milwaukee has some great fans that are always showing up and showing out. So we’ve got to play damn near perfect basketball, which we’re capable of. Play hard, stick together through the good, through the bad. We are one, and I think we’re going to be OK. Let this season go, let the play-in go. 0-0 and get to work.”
Meanwhile, the Bulls’ season ends on the brink of the playoffs after rallying in the second half of the campaign.
Chicago was seven games under .500 at the All-Star break but went 14-9 to close the regular season to earn the East’s No. 10 seed. In Wednesday’s play-in game, the Bulls trailed by 19 points in the third quarter against the Toronto Raptors before storming back to extend their season to Friday’s matchup with Miami.
But the Bulls did not have one more comeback in them. Zach LaVine scored 15 points and struggled to 6-of-21 shooting from the field. Coby White hit a 3-pointer with 3:47 remaining in the game to put the Bulls up 90-87. It was the last field goal Chicago converted.
“This one hurt,” said Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan, who finished with 26 points. “It sucks. It shouldn’t have ended like that. We gave ourselves an opportunity to win a game. We were up. We can’t make the mistakes that we made, especially in a game like this. Now we’re sitting in our reality with nothing to do.”