Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler has vastly improved in virtually every area of his game since he entered the NBA in 2011, including passing. During his rookie season, Butler averaged just 0.3 assists per game, and he averaged only 1.4 assists per game during his second season. At that point in time, he looked like an average playmaker, at best — certainly not the type of player that would one day lead an entire NBA Finals series in assists. However, that’s exactly what Butler is doing in the 2020 Finals, as his improved passing prowess has been on display against the Lakers. 

During the regular season, Butler led the Heat with a career-high six assists per game, and he has picked up his playmaking in the postseason, especially in the Finals as the Heat have been without starting point guard Goran Dragic. Through four Finals games against the Lakers, Butler is averaging 10 assists per performance, and his ability to keep all of his teammates involved is a big part of the reason why the Heat have been able to keep the series relatively competitive. 

In Game 3, with his team down 2-0 and a loss away from falling into a historically insurmountable hole, Butler put on a passing clinic. He recorded 13 assists for the second straight game, and he consistently put his teammates in position to get open shots. In the play below, from the first quarter of Game 3, Butler was able to get a wide-open look for Meyers Leonard by simply putting pressure on the defense. Butler drove past LeBron James and drew help from Dwight Howard, who was forced to leave Leonard open at the front of the rim. Then, just as Howard stepped over to slow Butler’s penetration, Butler dropped the ball off to Leonard for an easy finish: 

Less than a minute later, Butler tallied another assist. This time, patience paid off. After getting the ball on the perimeter, Butler surveyed the floor and allowed the play to develop. A quick basket cut by Duncan Robinson caught L.A.’s defense off guard, and Butler found him for an easy layup. 

Leonard has seen limited playing time throughout the postseason, and Robinson has struggled with his shot in the Finals. Getting open, easy opportunities, like the ones generated above by Butler, are a great way for the supporting cast to get going and gain some confidence. In a way, those two plays are a microcosm of Miami’s current campaign, as Butler’s ability to foster confidence in his unheralded teammates has been a major key to the Heat’s success this season. Though Butler is capable of putting up monster scoring numbers — he had 40 points against the Lakers in Game 3 — he doesn’t view himself as a scorer, and he takes more pride in his ability to set up his teammates. 

“I’m not a volume scorer,” Butler said earlier this week. “I take what the game gives me. I really like my teammates to be successful, man.”  

Butler may not view himself as a volume scorer, but his ability to score in bunches, and specifically his knack for attacking the basket, inherently allows him to be a better facilitator. With the game tied in the fourth quarter of Game 3, Butler took advantage of the fact that defenses have to respect his drive. From the top of the key, he drove past LeBron and into the paint. Not wanting to allow an easy layup for Butler, Markieff Morris slid over to provide help, which allowed an unguarded Kelly Olynyk to pop out to the perimeter. With the defense effectively collapsed, Butler kicked the ball out to Olynyk, who was able to knock down a wide-open 3-pointer. 

A couple of minutes later, Butler found Olynyk again, this time with a bounce pass in the paint that skipped right past the outstretched arm of Anthony Davis. 

The placement on that pass is perfect. For those keeping count, that’s five easy points that Butler generated for Olynyk in a matter of minutes. Having a star player that can consistently create easy opportunities for his teammates is an invaluable trait — and one that’s worked out pretty well for Butler’s adversary in the Finals, LeBron James, over the years. James is widely considered to be one of the greatest passers of all time, and Butler is out-assisting him in the series. That’s pretty impressive. 

When Butler says he takes what the game gives him, he means it. In the play below from Game 4, Duncan Robinson sets a ball screen for Butler. Anthony Davis goes all the way under the screen, which leaves Butler with a whole lot of space to work with. Instead of settling for a long shot though, Butler attacks the space, and Morris is forced to provide help. That’s when Butler kicks it out to Jae Crowder for an open corner 3-pointer: 

This was some excellent execution on Butler’s part. This ability to read, and in turn dictate, defenses is something that has come along with experience for Butler. It’s not something that he came into the league with. Yet another example of his improved adroitness when it comes to passing came with just over five minutes remaining in Game 4. In this play, Butler serves as a screener, and he sets a perimeter pick for Heat guard Tyler Herro. After setting the pick Butler rolls toward the rim and receives a quick pass from Herro. When Butler catches the pass, two Lakers defenders — LeBron and Alex Caruso — converge on him. Butler reacts quickly and drops off a pass to Heat center Bam Adebayo for an easy bucket. 

Just like the Heat this season, Butler has surpassed all early expectations when it comes to his career. He projected as a role player when he was drafted, and he has since developed into a legitimate star, and he’s still improving. He’s passing at a higher level in the 2020 Finals than he ever has in his career, and though his improvement in this area might not be enough to sink the LeBron-led Lakers, it certainly bodes well for Butler’s future as a player, and Miami’s future as a team, especially if they’re ultimately able to land another top-tier talent to pair with Butler. 

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