Heat Gain a Sliver of Hope Behind Butler, Defensive Adjustments

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The Heat won’t go down without a brawl. Led by Jimmy Butler, Miami drew blood in the NBA Finals on Sunday, gutting out a 115–104 win over the Lakers to bring the series within one game at 2–1. Playing without Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic for the second straight contest, the Heat rode Butler and a tightened defense for its first win of the series. LeBron James nearly put up a triple double with 25 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists, while Anthony Davis scored only 15 points amid foul trouble. 

Here are three thoughts on the upset:

The Butler Did It

Simply put, it was a masterpiece. Butler matched James and Davis in scoring by himself Sunday. He became only the third player to record a 40-point triple double in the Finals (joining James and Jerry West), and the first to score 40 in a Finals game without a three-pointer since Shaquille O’Neal in 2002. And that last part is key. Butler was relentless in attacking the rim Sunday. By collapsing the defense repeatedly, he was able to find scores in the paint, draw fouls, or spray the ball out to his shooters. Miami needed a perfect performance to have a chance in this series, and Butler delivered one of the signature showings in championship history.

Jimmy famously likes to wake up at god-awful early hours for his workouts, and every single one of those sessions paid off in Game 3. He played 45 minutes, resting only 55 seconds in the second half. He was the Heat’s primary ball-handler, scorer and playmaker—and defended LeBron for good measure. 

Perhaps most impressive, Butler did all of this with a carefree attitude. It’s impossible to quantify Butler’s leadership or how it affects his teammates, but no player looked to be having as much fun as Jimmy on Sunday. He was all smiles during a pregame interview. He chirped with James. He laughed after a hard foul from Rajon Rondo. Despite the stakes of the situation, Butler looked as loose as he has all bubble. Whether Butler welcomed the pressure or ignored it entirely, it led to one of the greatest games in Finals history.

Can the Heat Hold This Defense?

After posting an offensive rating of 126.3 through the first two games of the Finals, the Lakers were held to a 104.0 offensive efficiency in Game 3. Despite hitting 14 threes (including five big ones from Markeff Morris), LA had its third-worst scoring game of the playoffs. Davis’s early foul trouble and overall ineffectiveness certainly played a role, but the Heat made a couple tweaks to keep an eye on moving forward.

Miami didn’t play as much zone in Game 3 as it did in Game 2, and when it did, Erik Spoelstra didn’t utilize the 2-1-2 look he’s used for most of the playoffs. The Heat played something closer to a 3-2 zone look Sunday, and it was better suited for matching up with the Lakers. The soft spot in the middle of the floor couldn’t be exploited as it was earlier in the series. It may not be a long-term fix, but the switch was enough to slow down the Lakers for one night.

Lakers forward LeBron James dribbles while defended by Heat forward Jimmy Butler during the 2020 NBA Finals.

The Heat also changed up their man coverage. After switching more often in Games 1 and 2, Miami didn’t let LeBron attack its lesser defenders in Game 3. When the Lakers tried to hunt Duncan Robinson or Tyler Herro, they would hedge on screens until James’s primary defender could recover. Essentially, Miami wasn’t going to let LeBron isolate on anyone other than Butler. The Heat bet on their backline activity and the Lakers’ overall lack of dead-eye shooters to survive this strategy.

If Miami hopes to win another game in this series, it could come down to how well it executes these new defensive wrinkles. It won’t be easy. Frank Vogel is more than adept at making his own adjustments. And there’s no magical defense that will shut down LeBron. But after getting pounded by the Lakers for two straight games, there’s now at least some hope for the Heat’s defense.

Does This Win Mean Anything?

Yes, but also no. The Heat bought themselves some time with this win. They can’t take the Finals unless Adebayo and Dragic return. If they’re both able to play in Game 4, then we may have a competitive series on our hands. That was the significance of this win. Miami is within striking distance if it can get two of its three best players back. If Dragic and Adebayo aren’t able to go moving forward, then Game 3 will almost assuredly end up as a footnote in another LeBron title run.