The enduring image of this thrilling and intense and entertaining game of the NBA Finals was Jimmy Butler sneaking away from the fray, slacking off and copping a break from work. Imagine the gall, the audacity, the sheer guts it must’ve taken to chill, even for a moment, while a compelling contest swirled all around him.
Well, sure, OK then. He did deserve that.
He did need to allow his burning lungs to expand and contract safely after he got fouled deep in the fourth quarter and then sauntered over and leaned on the railing surrounding the court for support. Because his coach, Erik Spoelstra, didn’t have enough compassion to give him much rest on this night -- or Spoelstra knew the Heat couldn’t afford to allow it. Because this Game 5, a do-or-die for Miami’s season, required whatever Butler could give, and then some.
Because, even at that delicate and quick moment of peace, his classic duel with LeBron James and the outcome of the game begged for more.
> Finals Game 6: Lakers vs. Heat, Sunday at 7:30 ET on ABC
And so Butler did catch his breath with 16.8 seconds left before going to the free throw line and swishing two more and then proceeding to burn the candle on the other end, as he did time and time again Friday to enhance his basketball reputation and his team’s chances of making this series better than anyone could’ve imagined.
“I left it all out there on the court,” he said.
The Finals will go a sixth game because Butler played all but 48 seconds out of a possible 48 minutes and won his fourth-quarter stare-down with LeBron. Did you see this coming? Did you figure that Butler, a nice enough player who never reached MVP contention in his career, would get the best of an opponent who’s on the Mount Rushmore of greats?
Did you really see the Heat, after watching their 11-point lead evaporate Friday, fighting back by taking their cue from Butler to keep the Larry O’Brien Trophy stashed in a back room at the Disney campus for another day?
They’ve won a pair of games in this series against the heavily-favored Lakers because Butler was epic twice now. He followed up a 40-point triple-double in Game 3 with a 35-point triple in Game 5. He got the best of LeBron on a night when LeBron sizzled and was locked into closeout mode.
“His will to win is remarkable,” Spoelstra said. “To do that in 47-plus minutes and take the challenge on the other end … every young player coming into this league should study footage of Jimmy Butler, a definition of a two-way player competing on both ends. Remarkable, exceptional.”
It’s now 3-2 Lakers after the 111-108 loss, and while the series still leans in the direction of the Lakers, with each game there’s always a chance of something going wrong — like, an untimely injury that could spell doom. Speaking of that, Anthony Davis spent the fourth quarter on one leg, caused by an apparent foot injury in the first quarter, and he has only one day to heal up before Sunday’s tipoff.
But that’s a conversation for later. Right now, this is about Butler and LeBron and their ridiculous stat lines, which don’t fully explain how their back-and-forth buckets made for must-see basketball in the tense closing moments.
And craziest of all, that brilliance was capped by Danny Green missing a potentially championship-winning 3-pointer with seven seconds left.
This was Butler: 35 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists, five steals. He scored nine of the Heat’s last 11 points. He feasted on mid-range shots and layups, further damaging his reputation among the analytics crowd. He was 12-for-12 from the free throw line. He took command in most of the crucial moments and possessions, saving a few for the undrafted Duncan Robinson, who blistered from deep by making 7-of-13.
And he took the task of guarding LeBron, burning calories on the other end of the court as well.
I want [Jimmy] to be great. I want him to be something special, and he keeps doing it.”
“I want him to be great,” said teammate Bam Adebayo. “I want him to be something special, and he keeps doing it.”
This was LeBron: 40 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists, three steals. He shot 6-for-9 on 3-pointers. He also charged the rim, especially late in the game, dropping layups and sometimes drawing fouls.
LeBron also made the right basketball play on the Lakers’ final possession when he threw to an open Green rather than compete against a Miami double team with the Lakers down a point in the final 20 seconds. It was indeed the right play, one that was made twice by Michael Jordan to win championships.
That said, Green hasn’t been right from the 3-point line throughout much of the playoffs -- or much of the season, actually. His miss wasn’t much of a surprise. Many others who found themselves in those moment in previous NBA Finals -- Robert Horry, Steve Kerr, Ray Allen, John Paxson, Kyrie Irving -- flourished, not floundered.
“I was able to draw two defenders from below the free throw line and find one of our shooters for a wide-open 3 to win the championship,” LeBron explained. “I trusted him. I know he wished he could have it again. I wish I could’ve made a better pass. You live with it.”
Making matters worse for the Lakers on that possession was Markieff Morris mindlessly throwing the rebound away; he just suffered brain-lock. It delayed a Lakers coronation and kept the Disney campus populated for at least two more days and gave the Heat a sense of confidence in a series that nonetheless requires them to keep climbing mountains.
Butler was still talking up his teammates well into the night, saying how he liked their chances even if the world doesn’t:
“We built for this. We been doing this all year long. This didn’t start in the bubble. We’re so together on the floor, off the floor, that’s why we win. That’s how we’re going to play from here on out … We ain’t backing down, we ain’t shying away. We still fight. We’re not scared of nobody. We’re in it to win it.”
Actually, a large part why the Heat have won two games is Butler, and despite the Lakers defense now paying him all sorts of respect, he has something to say about that, too:
“No matter how they’re going to guard me I’m going to make the right play … That’s what my team asks of me. That’s what they need me to do. I know that I’m capable of it, but I have a great group of guys who make it a hell of a lot easier. They give me a lot of confidence to go out there and hoop.
“It’s easy whenever I have a group of guys around me and a coach who thinks I can play at a high level. I got so many people in my ear to tell me to keep doing what I’m doing.
“I know I’m capable of it. I believe in my skill set and talent.”
The next game of the NBA season was supposed to take place in January or February or whenever science decided to allow the league to write a specific target date for 2021 in ink. Instead, the 2020 season and the 2020 NBA Finals will get at least one more game, in a few days.
In a best-case scenario for Miami, there will be more from Jimmy Butler both in terms of minutes and poise. And plenty from Robinson, who has the green light even with defenders hanging on him; as Spoelstra said, “[Duncan] and Tyler are sticks of dynamite, they can go off at any time.” And maybe the determination and hustle from the Heat can make the Lakers flinch.
For the Lakers, it’s all about Davis and his ankle and if a third impact player will surface. And maybe next time, Danny Green makes the shot, assuming LeBron still has confidence in him.
The NBA Finals just perked up. This is a series after all.
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