A once-in-forever NBA postseason happening inside a hopefully once-in-forever bubble deserved something to shake the Finals out of its slumber.
The Lakers’ dominance in the first two games of the series made the sweep feel inevitable. And a drama-free ending to the league’s great experiment just isn’t befitting of everything that’s been accomplished here.
But 40 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists later, the Finals has its drama and the Lakers have their first reasons to be worried.
“How else do you say it,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, “but Jimmy effing Butler.”
Guard Duncan Robinson of New Castle, N.H., said another name when he learned Butler just became the third player ever with a 40-point triple-double in NBA Finals history.
“Jesus,” Robinson said.
The numbers put him alongside NBA royalty. Only Shaquille O’Neal and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored 40 in the Finals since the three-point arc was added without shooting once from behind it. Only Jerry West and LeBron James had 40-point triple-doubles in the Finals before Sunday.
And after Game 3, only Butler got a win to go with that 40-point triple-double. And to him, that’s all that matters.
He said that was all that mattered after scoring 40 in Game 1 against the Milwaukee Bucks in the conference semifinals. He said it throughout an Eastern Conference finals when he never scored more than 24. And after playing the best basketball game of his life, he said it again.
“Everybody remembers winning. That’s it. They don’t care how many points you score. They only care if you won or lost,” Butler said. “For us, we’re all about winning. We are. I say it all the time, but I mean it. “…So I hope the next game I score zero and y’all talk all you want to talk and we win so I come up here and say the same thing.”
This is a very bad plan. The Heat probably can’t win if Butler isn’t at least a little bit “Jimmy Buckets,” but his play in the fourth quarter Sunday showed that his value extends well beyond a single statistical category. He, just like James and Anthony Davis, is good enough to take over and win a game for a team. If he hadn’t, people here would’ve started packing and booking airline tickets.
Now, they’re wondering how many more times Butler and the Heat can do it again.
There’s swagger that doesn’t show up in the box score, a fearlessness to demand that the Heat play “damn near perfect” to get a win and then go out and meet his expectations.
The Lakers grabbed a lead with just under nine minutes left in the game, their first since early in the second quarter. Momentum was swinging, but Butler found the best player on the planet and went at him to grab it right back.
With the shot clock winding down, Butler drove to the left of James, quickly jumping and flipping in a shot to tie the score back up. James grabbed the ball from the net, clenched his right fist and punched at the ball before passing it to the inbounder.
Butler quickly stared right at James. Then he grinned.
The hoop triggered a flurry of winning plays. He assisted on the next three Miami scores. He forced James into a travel when he slid out of the way while the bigger, stronger Laker was trying to post up. He blocked a shot, grabbed rebounds and got to the free-throw line, hitting the ground just as hard as Dwyane Wade used to before getting up and adding to the Miami lead.
“That was unbelievable,” Kelly Olynyk said. “His determination and his will to win were out of this world. We basically just gave him the ball and said, ‘Be great.’ And he was. He was making the right decision every single time.”
It was a showcase performance for Butler, a player who undoubtedly gets less credit than he deserves because of his so-so stats by superstar standards. This year he averaged 19.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists.
But he doesn’t make 3-point shots, a major handicap in the modern NBA, and he’s got a ton of miles on his tires. Add that to concerns about his personality that led to uneasiness in Chicago, Minnesota and Philadelphia, and Butler wasn’t at the top of anyone’s free-agent list this summer.
Except for Miami’s. Because apparently the Heat share Butler’s philosophy about winning, even if it requires some tough talk.
Butler sat for only 4:09 in Game 3, carrying the load on offense while still harassing James on defense.
“Jimmy understands this, that it’s going to take whatever is necessary, everything over the top and beyond,” Spoelstra said. “…This is why we pursued Jimmy so aggressively. We just felt, on all across the board, there was an alignment, that we’re sharing the same competitive values, right or wrong … It doesn’t matter what everybody else thinks.”
Early in Game 3, Butler and the Heat had a chance. The Lakers turned the ball over 10 times but the Heat scored only 11 points off of them. And as the quarter ended, the Heat led by only three despite controlling most of the quarter.
As Butler walked back to the bench, James let him know that the Heat had screwed up, that the Lakers were still alive and that, down 2-0, the Heat might be in trouble.
By the time Butler scored his 40th point, the Heat knew that any idea that the Lakers would be busting out of the bubble after a sweep was gone.
“You’re in trouble,” he told James and the Lakers.
And thank goodness he could be right. These Finals deserve it.