In the biggest game of his life, Jimmy Butler just had the game of his life. The first player in NBA history to post a 40-point triple-double in a Finals victory, Butler willed the Miami Heat to a 115-104 win over the Lakers in Game 3 on Sunday, and now we’ve got ourselves a series. The Lakers still lead 2-1, but as Butler walked off the court late in the fourth quarter, he appeared to be mouthing something along the lines of “you’re in trouble.”
We’ll see about that.
For now, here’s what we know for sure: Butler is a seriously bad man. With the Heat in must-win mode, and without the services of Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic, Butler finished with 40 points, 13 assists, 11 rebounds, two steals and two blocks. He shot 14 for 20 from the field, 12 for 14 from the foul line. And somehow that line sells his effort short. Butler did it on both ends. He played 44 of the most intense, unrelenting minutes you’ll ever see. His conditioning is bordering on inhuman. His will to win is inspiring.
In our CBS chat room during the game, Allen Iverson’s name came up as we bounced around when we’d ever seen an individual performance like this, on such a big stage, on such an out-manned team. The 76ers, from a collective talent standpoint, had no business on the same floor as the Lakers back in the 2001 Finals, but they stole Game 1 on the back of Iverson’s heroic 48-point, six-assist, five-steal effort.
This Heat team is better than that Sixers team. They have a lot more weapons, a lot more spacing and shooting, a far better defense. But without Adebayo and Dragic, it’s a fair enough parallel. Butler had to be extraordinary for the Heat to have a chance, and he was nothing short of that, becoming the first player to ever have more points, assists and rebounds than LeBron James in a Finals game, via Elias Sports Bureau.
“How else do you say it other than Jimmy ‘Effin’ Butler?” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters.
There is no other way to say it, Coach. This was the definition of a superstar putting his team on his back and carrying them to a place they were incapable of going on their own. When Butler came to the Heat, Pat Riley called him a top-10 player, which a lot of people would’ve argued at the time. Now it’s starting to look like an understatement.
Butler forced his way to the rim, and subsequently, to the free throw line in Game 3. He was a master in the mid-post. Butler is so under control, so strong, and he has to be one of the best last-second passers in the league, sometimes drawing cackles for his apparent aversion to layups as he’s always looking to kick out to shooters once he’s in the air, and yet he never gets caught.
Speaking of aversions, Butler didn’t take a single 3-pointer on Sunday. Imagine, a perimeter player authoring this kind of showing, in today’s NBA, entirely in the paint and mid-range. It’s what he’s done all season, turning the most infrequent — and overall worst — 3-point shooting campaign of his career into arguably his best season.
Butler’s pace is elite. He never allows himself to be sped up, and he gradually gains downhill leverage on his defender as opposed to guys who create dramatic space via their handle or first-step quickness. He gets a half step, gets you on his hip, then finishes you with a combination of brute strength, sublime footwork, terrific touch, patience and passing.
And yet, there’s something how Butler goes about his business that’s hard to define. You just know it when you see it. This is a true-blue superstar, and Butler continues to get the last laugh on the critics who’ve been so quick to label him as a team-killer. As it looks to me, every single team Butler has played for has been significantly better for it.
He led the Bulls back to the playoffs, where they haven’t returned since he left. He led the Timberwolves to their only playoff appearance in the last 18 years. He had the Sixers one overtime period from the conference finals, and they went in the tank the second he left. Now here he is with Miami, dominating on the stage he always wanted but perhaps some people didn’t believe his game deserved.
“This is what he wanted. This is what we wanted,” Spoelstra said. “It’s really hard to analyze or describe Jimmy until you actually feel him between the four lines. He’s a supreme, elite competitor, and we needed it. Obviously this was a very desperate, urgent game, and he was doing it on both ends of the court. Just puts his imprint on every important part of the game. He’s in the top percentile of this entire association in terms of conditioning, and you saw he just got stronger as the game went on. But in terms of you saying a Marquette guy, you know, Dwyane [Wade] swore to us — he looked at Pat [Riley] and I dead in the eye and said, ‘This is your guy, this is the next guy.'”
As endorsements go, that’s about as credible as it gets. Nobody understands what the Miami Heat are all about, and what kind of player will thrive in that kind of environment, better than Wade, who returned to Miami to finish his Hall of Fame career just in time to turn the reigns over to Butler, who is quickly establishing himself in the postseason lore of one of the proudest, toughest franchises in all of sports.
“In terms of the physicality, this is what Jimmy — why he prepares the way that he does that is so uncommon,” Spoesltra said. “Year round, he has to be able to take on that physicality to make those plays, to be able to draw fouls and take contact and get up and be able to make those free throws. I mean, he just was, you know, it’s so settling when you have that type of guy in a really competitive game like this. It allows your other guys — and we’re playing young guys — they can just be who they are. They don’t have to worry about too much pressure or context. They can just be who they are when they have somebody like that who takes on all the pressure for them.”
Now, you could argue the pressure has shifted to the Lakers, who were expected to put the Heat away rather easily once Adebayo and Dragic went out. Butler didn’t let it happen, and suddenly Miami might be in position to get Adebayo back for Game 4. There’s no official word on that, but even if Bam can’t go, the Heat are very much alive for one simple reason: They have Jimmy Butler. On Sunday, that was just enough. Personally, I’m done doubting his ability to do it again. And if the Heat manage to get this series to 2-2, look out.