DENVER — The sound was faint, then it was clear as it blasted through the speakers during the Miami Heat practice Saturday afternoon — the soulful melodies from The Isley Brothers and then, The Temptations.
The respective lead singers, Ronald Isley and the late David Ruffin, had distinctive voices in the old-school songs, a break from the usual music that’s played today during games all across sports.
Perhaps it was a message to Jimmy Butler, a throwback in today’s game but undoubtedly the lead singer for the Miami Heat. Butler had a nondescript NBA Finals opener after a promising opening minute or two, unable to produce the same magic he conjured in road games of the last three series.
His 13 points was fourth on the Heat behind Bam Adebayo, Gabe Vincent and Haywood Highsmith, who provided a late spark to make the final score respectable. With Caleb Martin and Max Strus struggling, they needed more aggression from Butler, but he seemed to cede to Denver’s length inside, rarely challenging the interior.
He repeated the sentiments during Saturday’s practice.
“For me, it’s not going to be adjustments,” Malone said. “It’s going to be I expect the Miami Heat to come out with a much greater energy and force and attack mindset tomorrow evening.”
The only player who seems to fit that description given Miami’s roster is Butler. He admits to setting the tone and having the rest of his teammates come along, and considering the Heat took just two free throws in Game 1, they never seemed to bother making Denver’s defense uncomfortable.
It’s a delicate balance for both, as Erik Spoelstra has embraced what this Heat roster is, a group of 3-point shooters who can get hot at any time. And Butler is the main facilitator because he makes smart decisions, rarely turns the ball over and will pass up good shots in the effort to find great shots for the shooters.
Because, how else will they get good looks?
“I’m going to continue [to] play the right way. I’m going to pass the ball to my shooters the way I have been playing the entire playoffs, the entire year,” Butler said. “But yeah, I think I’ve got to be more aggressive putting pressure on the rim. I think that makes everybody’s job a lot easier.
“They definitely follow suit whenever I’m aggressive on both sides of the ball. So I have to be the one to come out and kick that off the right way, which I will, and we’ll see where we end up.”
Butler refuses to take bad shots, so that means he’ll have to be more aggressive in hunting the good ones. Adebayo was left as a lone effective offensive player for the most part of the evening and considering he has his hands all the way full with Nikola Jokić, it wouldn’t be wise to have him taking 25 shots.
“Obviously, we want to get JB and Bam involved as much as possible. They are our two best players,” Spoelstra said. “We have to do it in different ways so it’s not just a steady diet of whatever that may be. And there were certain aspects of what we did the other night [that] were very good, and there are other areas offensively where we definitely need to improve and be more intentional.”
The last time Butler played in the NBA Finals, it was as aggressive as he’d been in his career on offense. In the Heat’s two wins over the Lakers in the 2020 bubble, Butler had historic games — a 35-point triple-double and a 40-point triple-double.
He put the team on his back in earlier rounds, particularly against Milwaukee in that rare 1-8 seed upset. When he’s in that mode, the Heat feel unbeatable.
He may have to summon the same spirit to keep Miami afloat here, if he’s physically able. Butler sprained his ankle in the semifinals against New York and seemed to aggravate it against Boston in Game 7 of the conference finals. He, of course, will have none of the talk.
Butler will insist everybody’s banged up this time of year, which is true. But the Heat need him to be ultra aggressive to keep up with the explosive Nuggets.
As much as the Nuggets determined the terms in Game 1, they missed a lot of open shots. Putting up just 104 points doesn’t feel like it’ll be duplicated in Game 2, which means Butler and the shooters must be better.
“I think I was just passing the ball to the open guy, which I will continue to do,” Butler said. “Maybe I’ve got to get more layups, more dunks, more attempts at the rim to free our shooters a lot more often.”
“In terms of the shooters, that’s pretty simple. Let it fly. Ignite,” Spoelstra said. “Once they see two go down, it could be three, it could turn into six just like that (snaps fingers). As long as we are getting those clean looks, that’s what matters. And obviously we want to have a little more balance with our attacks and paint opportunities, against a team that does a good job taking it away.”
Butler isn’t the type to ignore his teammates even if they’re struggling — he’s quicker to fuss at a slumping shooter for not shooting than if they were to take a bad shot.
Besides, it’s too early to panic.
“Yeah, I need to say to them: I’m still going to throw you the ball, and if you miss the next 10, if you’re open on that 11th one, I’m still going to throw you the ball, because you’ll never be the reason why we lose,” Butler said. “It’s always a group effort. I want you to take the same shots because they are going to be there. We are going to throw you the ball. Stay aggressive because you’ve been the reason that we have won so many games before. You are going to be the reason that we win games now, and that’s never going to change.”
Butler being a lead singer capable of putting out a hit also isn’t going to change, either. He just has to grab the mic.