Butler, Heat punch a ticket into the NBA’s final four

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Jimmy Butler set the tone for the Miami Heat season on the first day of training camp.

He got to the gym at 3:30 a.m., letting teammates know how hard he expected them to work. And then he filmed himself singing throughout the drive to the team hotel, letting teammates know how much fun they were going to have.

The formula is already a success.

The Heat are headed to the Eastern Conference finals, after ousting the top-seeded — and ailing — Milwaukee Bucks in five games. Miami went up 3-0 when the Bucks had reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, lost Game 4 when he couldn’t play anymore, then finished the series off Tuesday night with Milwaukee’s best player only able to watch.

But Butler wants much more than just getting to this point.

“We’re a close group,” Butler said. “We like being around one another, constantly talking about how we can make each other better. And what we see out there on the floor … we’re legit in it to win it. We don’t care about stats, we don’t care about fame, we don’t care about none of that. All that we all care about is winning the championship. And I’m telling you, that’s why we’re playing this style of basketball that we’re playing right now.”

The Heat have seven players — Udonis Haslem, Andre Iguodala, Goran Dragic, Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk, Meyers Leonard and Solomon Hill — who have appeared in conference finals games.

Butler won’t be in that club until early next week when the Heat open the East title series against either Boston or Toronto. He’d been to the playoffs seven times before coming to Miami, never getting past the second round.

He had chances. Butler and the Chicago Bulls took a 1-0 lead on LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat in the 2013 second round before losing in five games. Two years later, Butler and the Bulls had a 2-1 lead on James and the Cleveland Cavaliers; that series ended in six games. And last year, in his lone playoff run with Philadelphia, the season ended on Kawhi Leonard’s four-bounce game-winning jumper for Toronto at the buzzer in Game 7.

It was never meant to be. Until now.

“That is why we brought Jimmy Butler here,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Butler was the closer for Miami in the series against the Bucks. He averaged 9.0 points in the five fourth quarters, doing so on 65% shooting from the field and 88% from the foul line. He didn’t even get a field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter Tuesday, doing all his damage late from the line — going 6 for 6 to ensure that the win didn’t get away.

He didn’t get to a final four in high school. Or junior college. Or at Marquette. But he’s in one now, with Miami set to become one of the last four teams in the mix for this season’s NBA title.

“It’s a team game,” Butler said. “We’ve been that way all year long.”

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