LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The NBA Finals have come down to this: The Lakers are the smartest student in the class, they’ve already lined up post-graduation plans, and they’re taking what looked like an easy class for their final credits. Jimmy Butler is the old-school teacher who won’t let them get out until they earn their A.
Butler did not win Game 3 for the Miami Heat entirely by himself, but as teammate Tyler Herro said, “He did everything, obviously.” Everything included 40 points (on 20 shots!), 11 rebounds, 13 assists, two steals and two blocks in 45 minutes of making the Lakers wish they had showed up ready for the test.
“I love the work,” Butler said. “I tell coach [Erik Spoelstra] all the time: I’m ready for this. The biggest stage? Whatever they ask me to do, I can do it.”
A lot went into the Heat’s 115-104 win, which cut the Lakers’ series lead to 2-1, and there is one big question that comes out of it. But first, let’s pause and look for the people in Chicago, Minnesota and Philadelphia who decided Butler was not a franchise player. Presumably they are hiding under their desks.
The NBA is a wonderful entertainment vehicle, but it does not speak well of the league that Butler is on his fourth team. He is exactly what every die-hard fan wants in an athlete. He doesn’t take nights off, and on some nights, he only takes a few minutes off. He takes more pride in defense than offense. He loves being coached. He doesn’t need another star on the marquee but doesn’t mind if there is one. He doesn’t care if he gets slammed to the floor—at one point in Game 3, he got hammered, then grabbed his midsection, clearly in pain, and he stood at the free throw line with a look on his face that said, “That’s all you got, buddy?”
Chicago decided to trade him rather than pay him like a true star. Minnesota watched him bristle at the franchise’s young faux stars, Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins, and instead of realizing Butler was the guy to build around, the Timberwolves let the situation get incredibly ugly and then shipped him to Philadelphia. The 76ers had similar problems, albeit with better young players, and let him walk in free agency—and Butler was eager to walk.
Now here is Butler, going toe-to-toe with the best player of his generation in the NBA Finals—and for at least one night, getting the best of him.
“LeBron has got the best of me way too many times,” Butler said. “I respect him for it. But this is a different time. I got a different group of guys around me.”
Butler yelled “They're in trouble” at LeBron James in the fourth quarter, which is the kind of thing that gets social media aflutter. But he said James yelled the same thing at him in the first quarter. Neither one really mattered. Neither man gets intimidated, and neither man was bothered in the least by what the other said. There is too much mutual respect there.
Don’t get distracted. Butler never gets distracted. The story here is not the chirping or the fact that everybody expected the Lakers to win, because Butler said he gains zero motivation from that.
The story is that Jimmy Butler was by far the best player on the court in an NBA Finals game. He willed an undermanned team to a desperately needed win. He validated the words of fellow former Marquette star and Chicago teammate Dwyane Wade last summer.
“Dwyane swore to us,” Spoelstra said. “He looked Pat [Riley] and I in the eye and said, ‘This is your guy.’"
This is their guy. Before Game 3, it felt like this was their only guy. The Heat had no business winning this game. Goran Dragic and Bam Adebayo were injured. The usual underdog home-court advantage in Game 3 did not apply. But Spoelstra masterminded a brilliant game. Butler took the primary assignment on James, but Miami got creative when James had the ball up top, with Herro and others helping. The Heat tried to match the Lakers’ physicality without getting distracted by it. One stat that stood out from Game 3 is that Miami only grabbed three offensive rebounds. The Lakers had that many on one fourth-quarter possession. But if Miami had been too aggressive on the offensive boards, that just would have ignited the Lakers’ fast break.
So now it’s a series, and this brings us to the big question: Can the Heat win three more? The answer depends on two factors: The health of Adebayo and Dragic, and the focus of the Lakers.
Adebayo took shots with his team in pregame warmups, and Butler talked about getting both of them back. But there are doubts about whether Dragic can be effective after tearing his plantar fascia.
And as for the Lakers … they had eight turnovers in first seven minutes and fell behind by 13. They ended up losing by 11. Anthony Davis, who was probably the favorite for Finals MVP at tipoff, battled foul trouble, tentativeness and his teammates forgetting how good he is. He took nine shots. Seven players in this game took more than that. As great as Butler is, as great as he was in this game, the Lakers played poorly and they know it.
“Silly turnovers,” Davis said. "I had four. Offensive fouls, miscommunication on some passes … we just have to be better overall.”
Worse, as Davis said: “We didn’t defend at all tonight … we just didn’t talk on the defensive end,” and he would know, since he is the one who does most of the talking. James orchestrates the Lakers’ offense, but Davis is at least the co-leader of the defense.
There will be no mistaking each other anymore. The Lakers know they need to play well to win. The Heat know they can play, as Butler keeps saying “near-perfect basketball,” and they can win if they do—but they better do it. Butler said “Guys are starting to realize how much we belong on this stage.”
They do belong, But LeBron James will have a big say in who gets to be alone on the stage at the end, for the trophy presentation.
“I’ll be a lot better with the security of the ball and things of that nature,” James said.
He was asked: Why did he walk off the court to the locker room with 10 seconds left? Did he think the game was over, or was he frustrated with his team’s play?
James smiled and said, “Both.”
He expects to be sharper in Game 4. So does Davis. The Lakers are still the favorite to win the championship. Jimmy Butler doesn’t care. Never did, never will. And that’s why his team loves him.