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Dave Hyde: Jimmy Butler goes down and the Miami Heat can’t hold up without him

The blow that ultimately turned out the lights on the Miami Heat on Wednesday, and probably beyond, came late in the first quarter and not those final, frantic seconds at the end of the game. Jimmy Butler went up for a shot then under the basket and landed awkwardly on the extended leg of Philadelphia’s Kelly Oubre.

Butler lay like a fallen oak on the floor in pain that was mirrored on the televised faces of Heat president Pat Riley and its vice president of scowling, Alonzo Mourning. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, looking for some karmic justice, asked the refs what happened there in harder language.

Butler got up and tried to limp off the injury. He made some big plays off his basketball smarts as the Heat built a 13-point lead at half. He tried to tough through the second half. But, well, there was no hiding the truth of the injury when the Heat sunk in the final minutes.

Playoff Jimmy was Peg-leg Jimmy.

“He could still move a little bit in the second quarter, but as the second half went on he was more limited,’’ Spoelstra said after the 105-104 play-in loss to Philadelphia. “But we have no idea what now. We’ll see when we get back to Miami.”

There’s no crying over this. Not when you let your season come down to one night. Not when you’ve had the good fortune of opposing injuries in recent years (Giannis Antetokounmpo in Game 1 last year, Jayson Tatum in Game 7).

It’s just unfortunate Butler got hurt to go with Duncan Robinson and Terry Rozier. And instead of going on to play the New York Knicks in the first round of the playoffs the Heat return to Miami on Friday night for another play-in game to see if they make the playoffs.

And then would play top seed Boston, the lone great team in the East.

“We’ll do this the hard way,’’ Spoelstra said. “That has to be the path right now.”

The shame is they were right there, too. Their first half made this team look whole in a way they hadn’t much all season. Oh, it started ugly enough. Ugly seems to be part of their story.

They had three turnovers in the first three minutes, made two of their first 11 shots, Bam Adebayo went to the bench with two early fouls and then real calamity happened when Butler crumpled to the floor.

Still, they were right there. Spoelstra unwrapped a amoeba-like zone defense with shifting specters and changing roles that also kept Adebayo from having to cover 7-foot Joel Embiid. Philadelphia acted like it had never seen a zone. It shot a measly 32.6 percent in the first half with 12 turnovers.

Philadelphia fans, bless them, began booing.

The Heat led at half 51-39. That lead shrunk to five points after three quarters. Even then the script was a surprise as Butler and Tyler Herro were a combined 8-for-33 shooting. You wondered how the Heat could hold on. Answer: They couldn’t.

Philly took the lead on a Nicolas Batum 3-pointer at 79-76. Batum is another danger of a one-game series like this. He averaged 5.5 points in the regular season. He had 20 off the bench in this one, including 6 of 10 on 3-pointers.

Another problem for the Heat became Embiid. He came alive. Shooting. Passing. Defending. He’s been hurt much of the last couple of months, but he turned on his game when Philadelphia needed him in the fourth quarter.

The Heat typically turn to Butler for winning time in big games. Instead, with a one-point lead, there was rookie Jaime Jaquez Jr., who had a nice game, turning the ball over with under three minutes to play.

Then, after making a shot, Herro stepped on the midcourt line for a violation in a tie game with 55.1 seconds left. Philadelphia’s Oubre got a three-point play on the ensuing possession. That was that for the game.

There’s no excuses or crying for the Heat. They put themselves in a position where that injury to Butler effectively sank them. You winced watching him run the court. You rubbed your knee in sympathy at timeouts.

You now wonder how he can possibly be whole by Friday night. He finished with 19 points Wednesday, but was a non-factor by the end in a way he rarely is in big games.

It’s not the hard way now, as Spoelstra called it. That was last year when the Heat rose from this last play-in game to the NBA Finals.

This is the hardest way. Down three of your top eight players, including your one playoff star, isn’t any way to save the season.


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