T.J. Warren was one of the breakout stars of the NBA bubble, but he’ll have to overcome Jimmy Butler to help his Indiana Pacers upset the Miami Heat.
T.J. Warren emerged as one of the best surprises of the 2019-20 NBA season restart. He erupted for a season-high 53 points in the Indiana Pacers‘ first seeding game against the Philadelphia 76ers, and he averaged 34.8 points per game on 60.5 percent shooting over his first five outings.
The Pacers will need that version of Warren to upset the Miami Heat in the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs, particularly given his struggles against Jimmy Butler.
During a blowout Heat win over the Pacers in early January, Warren and Butler got tangled up after a hard foul and nearly came to blows.
After the game, Butler had some choice words when discussing Warren.
“He’s soft,” Butler told reporters. “He’s not even in my f**king league, like, nowhere near me. And if I was their coach, I would never put him on me, ever again. He’s… like, no. Put someone else on me, ’cause I’m gonna tear that s**t up every time we play. He’s trash.”
Butler also had their next date circled on his calendar, although the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily intervened.
The Heat and Pacers finally crossed paths again during the seeding games in the bubble, and it did not go well for Warren. He finished with only 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting in 29 minutes, and the Heat blew out the Pacers, 114-92.
That’s been a common theme throughout the season.
Who won the T.J. Warren – Jimmy Butler matchup this season?
In the Jan. 8 matchup that led to near-fisticuffs, Butler spent far more time guarding Warren than any other Heat player. Warren finished with only three points on 1-of-5 shooting in 23 minutes before getting ejected. During their seeding-game showdown, Butler again took the brunt of the Warren matchup, although Bam Adebayo and Jae Crowder spent time on him as well.
With Butler on the floor this season, Warren has averaged only 10.3 points on 35.5 percent shooting overall and 27.3 percent from deep while posting a minus-11.7 in 26.5 minutes per game. Butler has been off the floor for a total of three minutes during Warren’s three appearances against Miami.
While the Heat can slide Adebayo, Crowder and Andre Iguodala over to Warren at times, it’s clear that Butler takes this matchup personally. Given Butler’s success defending Warren to date, there’s no reason for head coach Erik Spoelstra to change his defensive assignments heading into this series.
Warren’s father, Tony Sr., told Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher that he’s warned his son not to get trapped in Butler’s mind games.
“We don’t get caught up in that,” Tony Sr. said. “I told him, ‘Just play your game, play for the team.’ Don’t get caught up in that other stuff with Butler and you. … Jimmy does that to everybody. … He tries to get under people’s skin. Throw them off their game. He was just trying to get inside T.J.’s head.”
Heading into this series, Warren should expect Butler to stay glued to him. And with All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis still sidelined by plantar fasciitis, the Pacers will likely need Warren to outplay Butler to have a chance in this series.
No Indiana rotation player had a better on/off differential than Sabonis, per Cleaning the Glass. Without his 18.5 points, 12.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game, a larger share of the scoring workload will fall on Warren, Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner and Victor Oladipo, who is working his way back from a torn quadriceps tendon.
It’s difficult to read too much into the seeding games, as the Pacers didn’t go all-out once their playoff matchup was locked in, but that blowout loss against the Heat doesn’t inspire much confidence in their ability to keep this series competitive. If Warren isn’t going nuclear as a scorer, Brogdon, Turner and Oladipo might not be able to pick up the slack four times over a seven-game series.
Warren could flip the narrative by lighting Butler up and proving that he is, in fact, not “trash.” But with Adebayo, Crowder and Iguodala lurking, the Heat have the array of wing defenders they’ll need to stifle Warren, Brogdon and Oladipo.
That’s where Sabonis’ absence will loom large in this series.
Butler will undoubtedly attempt to frustrate Warren throughout this series. Warren’s ability to tune out his primary antagonist and play his game will go a long way toward determining which team advances.