It’s not a particularly widespread practice, yet every so often, certain athletes get rewarded with something far more complimentary and everlasting than money or applause. Sometimes, it’s a candy bar or sandwich or another product named after them, or maybe a mention in a hit song, or most commonly, a game. Not a game that’s compatible with Playstation. Like, a real game.
Well: Jimmy Butler just had a game.
On Oct. 4 in the very complicated year of 2020, inside a shoebox of an arena on the Walt Disney World grounds, when everyone tuned in expecting more of the same in the lopsided Finals, the Jimmy Butler Game happened. That’s what it’ll be known for, because it was real and it was spectacular.
For all but two minutes and 14 seconds of Game 3, the Lakers felt and the Heat enjoyed the total Jimmy Butler Experience. There was energy from him, chilly composure, plenty of buckets of course, leadership and then a sly and sinister message near the end of his masterpiece when he snarly returned a taunt that LeBron James gave him in the first quarter: “You’re in trouble.”
> Finals Game 4: Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET on ABC
Not sure if LeBron heard it, or if the Lakers even believe it, but that’s really beside the point. Common sense says the Lakers will or should eventually own this series in which they still lead 2-1, but Sunday, if he does nothing else from here, Butler took ownership of His Game.
With a pair of important starters missing their second straight game for the Heat, Butler basically replayed a sequel to his famous Timberwolves moment when he took the Minnesota scrubs and beat the starters in practice to demonstrate his desire and toughness. From a statistical standpoint, Butler was never known as a volume guy in his career, or ever classified as a superstar by the strictest of definitions, but this was a dire situation facing Miami and so Butler put the “ball” in ballistic on Sunday.
These types of performances, meaning his 40-point triple-double, are rightly described as legendary when they happen in the championship round. Butler upped that ante by doing it without Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic, and with his short-handed team down 2-0 in the series, and becoming the first player to outscore, out-rebound and out-assist LeBron in a Finals game -- while also guarding LeBron.
“We won,” Butler said. “I could care less about triple-doubles. Glad my teammates had faith in me to hoop like that. I care about the win.”
Yes, indeed. Meanwhile, the tally: 40 points, 13 assists, 11 rebounds, two blocks and two steals for the 115-104 win. His points matched the combined output of LeBron and Anthony Davis, the leading candidates for Finals MVP.
“I’m ready for this,” Butler said. “This is the biggest stage.”
He certainly made a fan of LeBron, who called Butler “one of the best competitors we have in this game.”
Perhaps most impressive is how Butler was so efficient. He took only 20 shots, just two more than teammate Tyler Herro, yet Butler made 14 by employing some old-school flavor. He commanded attention and respect. He scored off the bounce, isolated by backing his man in the paint, drew enough contact to take 14 free throws (making 12), stuff you rarely see in a league that’s heavily slanted to a 3-point-shot-or-layup mentality. Butler didn’t even attempt a three in 45 minutes.
Also, he involved his teammates by drawing double-teams and creating shots for them, which of course only endeared him even more in the Miami locker room.
“We know how Jimmy is in these moments,” Herro said. “He did everything obviously, made play after play, bucket after bucket, defensively guarding LeBron, just being a leader out there, and we’re all following him. He just wants to win. He knows what it takes to win.”
Butler was a curious choice, at least from an outsider’s point of view, for Miami when the club went hunting for a centerpiece last summer and Butler was a free agent. Butler’s previous stints in Chicago, Minnesota and Philadelphia were not all ice cream and sweetness. He rubbed some the wrong way -- all in the name of competitiveness, he insists. Teammates weren’t broken up to see him leave. And Butler, though a five-time All-Star, has only made one All-NBA Team (third) and isn’t blessed with otherworldly physical gifts or Unicorn-like skills.
But Miami sensed what basketball purists knew: Butler is a competitive savant. Dwyane Wade, the best player in franchise history, sold Butler on Miami (“this is your guy, this is the next guy” he told Heat coach Erik Spoelstra) and vice versa. And here, in their first season together, they’ve reached the pinnacle of a somewhat unexpected ride for the player and No. 5 seed team.
“This is why we pursued Jimmy very aggressively,” Spoelstra said. “We were able to build a culture and surround a team around him. He’s an elite top percentile competitor.”
You must understand the pickle that Miami found itself in Sunday. Adebayo is nursing a bum shoulder and Dragic has a faulty plantar issue, and that erased a needed defender and a scorer from the lineup. Plus, LeBron and Davis did tag-team a number on Miami the first two games. Finally: No team has rallied from 3-0 in any NBA playoff series. Losing Game 3 meant Miami could start packing bags.
But Game 3 presented Butler with a challenge and a chance to show the basketball universe what he brings to the conversation.
“This is what he wanted, what we wanted,” Spoelstra said. “It’s really hard to analyze and describe Jimmy until you feel him between the four lines. We needed it. He was doing it on both ends, putting his imprint on every part of the game. He got stronger as the game went on.”
Yes, Butler never wilted from the moment or the urgency or pressure or burden. He kept asking for the ball and the chance to be a savior and the opportunity to extend this series beyond Tuesday. Butler wasn’t letting LeBron or Davis or anyone steal this night from him or remove his name from this game.
“It’s so settling to have that type of guy in a very competitive game like this,” said Spoelstra.
Meanwhile, the Lakers proved they are not immune to the occasional stinker, and they definitely left a scent. Davis fought through fouls in the first three quarters yet turned meek in the fourth. His impact was a quiet 15 points and five rebounds. LeBron once again flirted with a triple-double but at no point was he superior to Butler. Other than flashes from Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris, the Lakers were mild.
“This was our game and we let our foot off the gas,” said Kuzma.
Uh, actually, this was never your game. This game was already taken.
LeBron added: “I don’t feel like we’re concerned. We’re not concerned. We know we can play a whole lot better.”
This much is true, and maybe Butler was sounding more hopeful than anything else when he got puffy-chested following the win and began to gloat.
“LeBron has gotten the best of me way too many times,” Butler said. “But this is a different time now, different group of guys around me. We’re not going to lay down. We’re going to fight back into this and get to 2-2.”
In a best-case scenario for the Heat, they’ll get at least one missing player back in uniform Tuesday for Game 4 -- most likely Adebayo -- and surf this feel-good moment for at least another night.
Understand that when a series is extended, that’s one more game for something to go terribly wrong for the heavily-favored. That, more than the Heat, is the biggest issue confronting the Lakers.
But that’s for another day. For today, and until the ball goes up again in this series, it’s His World, or more specifically, His Game. If you didn’t know his name before Sunday, now you know.
“Jimmy Effin' Butler,” Spoelstra said, with emphasis on the middle.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.