No Matter What, Jimmy Butler Won the Bubble

After another stellar Finals performance, no player has improved his standing in the NBA since the restart quite like Jimmy Butler.
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Is anybody having more fun than Jimmy Butler?

The Heat’s do-it-all superstar put up another classic Finals performance in Miami’s thrilling Game 5 victory against the Lakers, just barely outdueling LeBron James in an instant classic. The series will now head to a Game 6 after a 111–108 win for Jimmy’s squad.

“It was hard this game and it's going to be even harder next game,” Butler said during his postgame presser about trying to topple the Lakers, before adding, “but I like our chances.” As those last five words came out of Butler’s mouth, his expression quickly changed to a knowing grin, reflective of the attitude he’s embodied all postseason.

Butler has been a revelation in the bubble, not only because of his incredible play, but because of how thoroughly he’s shifted the narrative surrounding his career. Did he want too much responsibility in Chicago? Did he demand too much from his teammates in Minnesota? Did he try hard enough to gel with Ben Simmons in Philadelphia? Partially because of how he’s played with the Heat, and partially because this NBA season has lasted longer than ever before, it can be easy to forget the clouds following Butler when he forced his way to Miami last summer.

To some, he was leaving a winning situation for one with less pressure (his last team, the Sixers, were eliminated in the first round.) To others, he no longer wanted to be one of three superstars when he could be the lone one. (“This is a team of one star? Who is that? Bam [Adebayo]?” Butler responded in December when asked if the Heat need more top-end talent.) And many simply thought Butler was a fringe star who found a franchise desperate enough to prop him up as something more.

Maybe there’s some elements of truth to that last suggestion, but Butler has obliterated all those lines of questioning in the bubble. Not only has he stepped up on the floor, he’s been the consummate teammate off of it. Goran Dragic describes him as one of his closest friends. He dedicates Tuesdays on his Instagram page to Tyler Herro. He rocked Erik Spoelstra’s college basketball uniform after closing out the Celtics. And after nearly every single game, no matter how well he plays individually, Jimmy is steadfast in crediting those around him.

“I got a hell of a group of guys around me that make my job a lot easier, I’m fortunate for those guys,” Butler said after Game 5, this after saying earlier in the series he wished he could zero points and his team still come away with a victory. Duncan Robinson, who scored 26 points Friday, mentioned part of the reason for his improvement since the start of the Finals is a chat he had with Butler after Game 2.

Of course, Jimmy’s motivational tactics wouldn’t mean much if he wasn’t delivering. His championship statline of 29.0 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 10.2 assists per game (on 55.5% shooting from the field) is, well, LeBron-esque. Butler is giving James probably his best personal duel ever in a Finals, and he’s doing so while accepting the challenge on him defensively.

Game 5 will be remembered for Jimmy and Bron going score for score over the final three minutes. Lost to history will be some of the incredible plays Butler made throughout the game. After getting clubbed in the head by Dwight Howard and making a free throw, on the ensuing Heat possession, Butler out-battled Anthony Davis for an offensive rebound and found Robinson for a wide-open three. With the Heat trailing by one in the fourth, Butler blocked James on a drive to the hoop, then stole the ball from Alex Caruso on the resulting inbounds pass. On the next time down the floor for Miami, he found Robinson for another three.

Whatever Erik Spoelstra asked of Butler, he accomplished in Game 5. He pulled up for jumpers to help neutralize Davis’s one-on-one defense. He set hard, committed screens to free up guards Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn. He often switched between guarding James and Davis. And he played more than 47 minutes, expending every bit of energy in his body. Though Miami’s win may have ultimately hinged on Danny Green missing a great look from three, Butler putting his undermanned team in that position is an accomplishment in the first place.

No matter what happens in Game 6, Butler has won over the last two-and-a-half months. He’s proven he can be the best player on a contender. He’s proven he can battle with one of the all-time greats when the stakes are the highest. He’s been vindicated for his messy exits from previous stops after how well he’s thrived in this one. And he’s done all of this with a smile on his face, playing carefree and unburdened even as his team tries to pull off a third straight upset.

Despite Butler’s heroics, Game 5 was a tossup. The Lakers are still the more talented team. And the Heat’s margin for error in this series is paper thin. Miami may very well lose the Finals on Sunday. That doesn’t mean Jimmy Butler isn’t a winner.