Against all odds, the Miami Heat have managed to make the NBA Finals a series.
Jimmy Butler was the best player on the court opposite LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and his Heat outworked their Los Angeles Lakers in a 115-104 win that trimmed Miami’s series deficit to 2-1. The victory comes with the hope that injured Heat stars Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic can return before their season is over. Both are desperate to play after respective neck and foot injuries cost them a second straight game.
“They can be beat, as long as we do what we’re supposed to do” Butler told ESPN afterwards. “Come the next game, I know they’re going to be so much better, and we’ve got to be able to match that energy.”
Butler logged his first career playoff triple-double with 40 points on 20 shots, 13 assists and 11 rebounds. He added two blocks and two steals, primarily defending James. It was a master class in the will to win.
“How else do you say it but Jimmy f---ing Butler?” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters following the must-win victory. “This is what he wanted. This is what we wanted. It’s really hard to analyze or describe Jimmy until you actually feel him between the four lines. He’s a supreme competitor, and we need it.”
Only James and Jerry West had previously posted a 40-point triple-double in a Finals game.
Asked what his mindset was in a defining effort, Butler added, “Win. I don’t care about a triple-double. I don’t care about none of that. I really don’t. I want to win. We did that. I’m happy with the outcome.”
Butler’s 40 points matched the combined totals of the two L.A. superstars. Davis picked up his fourth foul 1:38 into the third quarter and scored just 15 points, his second-lowest total of the playoffs. James finished with 25 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists against eight turnovers, courtesy of Butler’s ball pressure. He walked off the court with 10 seconds remaining, leaving the Lakers shorthanded to finish the 11-point loss.
How wide is the Lakers’ margin for error against the depleted Heat? Davis finished without a single point or rebound and committed four of his team’s Finals-record 10 turnovers in the opening quarter, and the Lakers still only trailed by three points entering the second stanza. They tied the game 32 seconds into the second quarter and took the lead inside of two minutes. Another early 13-point advantage squandered by Miami.
The Heat pushed their edge back to 14 on a 10-0 run to start the second half, facilitated by Butler and punctuated by Tyler Herro. Miami played as well as could be expected without Adebayo and Dragic, outworking a team that did not match their desperation, and yet there L.A. was, recapturing the lead on back-to-back Markieff Morris three-pointers and a Rajon Rondo layup three minutes into the final quarter.
But Butler would not be denied. He scored or assisted on 18 of the Heat’s next 20 points, flipping a 91-89 deficit into a 109-100 lead with 1:13 left that not even James, Davis and the big, bad Lakers could erase.
As both teams retreated to a timeout huddle, Butler mouthed to James, “You’re in trouble,” repeating what James had told him at the end of the first quarter, some 32 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists earlier.
The Lakers do not appear to be worried. “Trust me,” Davis told reporters, “we’ll be fine.”
So, too, might the Heat, especially if Adebayo and/or Dragic can return healthy enough to contribute. Spoelstra said prior to the game “both will do anything to get out there,” calling the decision not to play them “one of the most difficult decisions that I’ve had to make.” Adebayo was seen warming up before the game, and he is presumably closer to a return than Dragic, who suffered a plantar fascia tear in his left foot.
“Our hearts are broken about Goran and Bam missing these games because there’s sincere love for them,” Spoelstra said following the victory, declining to offer a recovery timeline on either of his injured stars. “Jimmy takes that to heart. Guys know that they have to do more until or if those guys come back.”
And they did. The Heat got 17 points apiece from Herro and Kelly Olynyk, the reserves called upon most to fulfill the roles of Dragic and Adebayo. Butler has repeatedly said Miami has to play “damn near perfect” to compete with the Lakers without two key contributors, and Game 3 was proof near-perfection is possible.
“We’re not going to lay down,” said Butler. “We're going to fight back in this thing, even it up 2-2.”
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