Heat faces elimination game, reality of no Jimmy Butler for ‘several weeks’ because of MCL injury

The Miami Heat not only lost its most important game of the season Wednesday, but the Heat also lost its best player for what could be the duration of its postseason run.

After undergoing an MRI on Thursday afternoon, Heat star Jimmy Butler was diagnosed with a sprained MCL in his right knee and will miss “several weeks,” according to a league source.

This unfortunate news comes with the Heat now facing an elimination game in the play-in tournament for the second straight year.

“We will do this the hard way,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said following Wednesday night’s narrow 105-104 play-in loss to the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center. “That just has to be the path right now.”

Heat falls to 76ers to set up must-win game vs. Bulls. Takeaways and info on Butler’s injury

Butler’s absence will make things even harder, as the Butler-less Heat will look to keep its season alive in Friday’s win-or-go-home play-in matchup against the Chicago Bulls at Kaseya Center (7 p.m., ESPN).

Butler, who was able to finish Wednesday’s game after hurting his right knee late in the first quarter, would miss the Heat’s first-round series against the top-seeded Boston Celtics if Miami defeats Chicago on Friday to advance to the playoffs.

“I hope that I’m fine,” Butler said Wednesday night in Philadelphia before an MRI revealed the MCL sprain. “I hope that I wake up tomorrow and can still stick-and-move. Right now, I can’t say that’s the case.”

The Heat also will be without point guard Terry Rozier against the Bulls on Friday. It will mark the sixth straight game that Rozier has missed with neck spasms.

Duncan Robinson did not play in his fifth straight game on Wednesday despite being available against the 76ers because he’s continuing to recover from a back issue. He’s listed as probable for Friday’s game.

Aside from also remaining without Josh Richardson (season-ending shoulder surgery), the rest of the Heat’s roster is expected to be available on Friday.

Butler’s injury happened in the final seconds of Wednesday’s opening period when he caught a full-court inbounds pass from Heat teammate Kevin Love. Butler then threw a pump fake that drew 76ers forward Kelly Oubre Jr. off his feet, but Oubre came down on Butler’s right leg.

After officials called a foul on Oubre for the contact with 1.5 seconds left in the first quarter, Butler stayed down on the court while rolling around in pain and grabbing his right knee before eventually limping back to the Heat’s bench.

“I fell and he landed and my knee just didn’t do well, I guess,” Butler said of the play. “I don’t know. But it’s not a good feeling, I can tell you that.”

Despite limping around the court the rest of the way, Butler stayed in the game to log 40 minutes in Wednesday’s loss. But he was clearly limited by the knee issue, finishing with 19 points on 5-of-18 shooting from the field, 2-of-6 shooting on threes and 7-of-8 shooting from the foul line, four rebounds, five assists and five steals.

It marked the first time this season that Butler has made five or fewer shots when taking 18 or more field goals. He shot just 1 of 4 from inside the paint in Wednesday’s second half after hurting his knee.

“He’s putting himself out there and I just really appreciate him for that competitive spirit,” Spoelstra said when asked about Butler pushing through the injury. “It really stiffened up on him in the second half. He was able to still move a little bit in that second quarter after it. But then as the second half went on, it started to limit him a little bit more — just the movement.”

After the game, Butler second-guessed his decision to stay on the court and play on the injured knee for the final three quarters.

“Honestly, I thought the adrenaline would kick back in and I’d be able to move,” Butler said. “But that just wasn’t the case. I wasn’t able to do anything on either side of the ball and I think I hurt us more than I helped us actually.”

When asked by a reporter how the 76ers were able to rally from a 14-point first-half deficit to beat the Heat on Wednesday and clinch the East’s No. 7 seed, Butler offered a short answer: “One of our best players was nicked up.”

This is just the continuation of an unfortunate trend for the Heat, which closed the regular season with the fifth-most missed games in the NBA because of injuries at 269 games. Those injuries forced the Heat to set a new franchise record with 35 different starting lineups used this regular season.

“That’s been our story, our DNA for the last couple years,” Heat guard Tyler Herro said. “There’s always been something that we’re dealing with as a team. It’s going to bring us closer and we’ll try to get ready for Friday no matter who’s available. Obviously, we’re hoping everything is OK with JB. We need him.”

Butler missed 22 games this season, with the Heat going 13-9 without him. But that winning record without Butler is misleading, considering the Heat outscored opponents by 5.5 points per 100 possessions with Butler on the court and was outscored by two points per 100 possessions when he wasn’t on the court this regular season.

Butler averaged 20.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, five assists and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 49.9 percent from the field this regular season. He was excellent last postseason, averaging 28.5 points, seven rebounds, 5.7 assists and 2.1 steals per game during the first three rounds of the 2023 playoffs to help carry the Heat to the NBA Finals before falling to the Denver Nuggets in the championship series.

The Bulls are also dealing with the own injury issues, ruling out Lonzo Ball (left knee surgery), Onuralp Bitim (right retinal detachment), Zach LaVine (right midfoot surgery), Julian Phillips (right midfoot sprain) and Patrick Williams (left midfoot surgery) for Friday’s game in Miami. In addition, Alex Caruso (left ankle sprain), Ayo Dosunmu (right quadriceps contusion) and Andre Drummond (left ankle sprain) are questionable for Chicago.

The winner of Friday’s play-in game between the Heat and Bulls will clinch the East’s No. 8 playoff seed to open the playoffs with a first-round series against the top-seeded Celtics, which would begin with Game 1 on Sunday at 1 p.m in Boston. The loser of Friday’s play-in game between the Heat and Bulls will be eliminated and miss the playoffs.

“We’ll be all right,” Butler said. “It hasn’t been easy for us all year long. We’ve been playing with guys nicked up all year long, so we should be used to it by now. This is a must-win or our season is over.”