Midway through the first quarter of Game 3 in the NBA Finals, Jimmy Butler is bringing the ball up the floor. His team is trailing 2-0 and is without the services of both Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic. As Butler crosses midcourt, the paint is empty of all defensive players. Only Kentavious Caldwell-Pope stands in front of him
Butler lowers his head and shoulder and drives. Caldwell-Pope moves his feet well but Butler keeps moving his legs, like a running back pushing through initial contact. Hit. Forward. Hit. Forward. Butler gains his inches by the foot. Three dribbles later, Butler is spinning, Caldwell-Pope is underneath the rim and the ball is going in. Help never came.
This was not an isolated incident. On his way to a historic 40-point, 13-assist, 11-rebound do-it-all performance with the season on the line, Jimmy Butler just kept on truckin’.
It’s very difficult to know NBA players from afar. Butler is no different. Amid every quote that gets blasted across airwaves and social media, there’s a human being.
About a month into the regular season, with the HEAT riding high on an 8-3 start which everyone was still trying to figure out whether to file into Real or Not Real folders, I asked for 10 minutes with Butler. He was putting up his fewest shot attempts per game in over six years and I thought I had come up with some clever lead-in statistics about his occasional aversion to throwing lob passes, but mostly I just wanted to get a better feel. Plenty of players talk. Not all have substance to what they say.
A few minutes into that discussion in one of the side rooms at AmericanAirlines Arena which rarely gets hit with sunlight, Butler described his game.
“I’m not a volume scorer. I take what the game gives me. I really like my teammates to be successful, man.”
I don’t mention this because it was a particularly colorful quote. It’s certainly not the sort that’s going to get retweeted constantly for a day or two. I mention it because of how it was delivered. Eye contact. A thoughtful pause. Tone absent both braggadocio and any sense of rehearsal. Butler laid his game out in such a way that demanded belief. Everything you needed to know in the way he said everything that followed, “I can get you a bucket, but…”
We tend to put All-Star wings into fairly small buckets. Given the tremendous amount of detailed reporting available these days every unique trait a player possesses tends to get its time to shine, but eventually perimeter players reach a point where if they do not appear to be carrying the offense in the manner they are expected to then criticism find its opportunity. Where many might ask ‘Why aren’t you doing more?’ what they often mean is, ‘Why aren’t you playing like someone else?’
It’s fitting that Butler’s hang-it-in-the-Louvre Game 3 masterpiece, a 40-point triple double in the NBA Finals that had only been previously matched by Jerry West and LeBron James (in losses), fit his identity perfectly.
“Jimmy was phenomenal,” James said. “He did everything that they needed him to do tonight and he came through big time in a big-time game.”
In an era where shooting is more in demand than ever, Butler was the first player since 2014 to score 40 points in a playoff game without attempting a single three. And the first since Dirk Nowitzki in 2011 to do it in the Conference Finals or later.
The only other players to do that in the NBA Finals since the three-point line was created? Shaquille O’Neal and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“How else do you say it other than Jimmy-effing-Butler,” Erik Spoelstra said.
Butler has only taken 25 shots 10 times in the past five years. For comparison, each of the Los Angeles Lakers’ two stars crossed that threshold in over 50 games during the same time period. As he said, volume is not part of his modus operandi. When he tops 30 points, it’s usually because he’s efficient from the floor and is getting to the foul line. In Game 3 Butler only took 20 shots, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and Chris Webber as the only players to put up 40-point triple doubles on 70 percent shooting – in any game, postseason or otherwise.
Only four of those 20 shots were outside the paint, and those four were all within a foot of it. Butler’s 26 points in the paint were a career-high. Relentless is the operating word. No fancy moves. No blazing first steps leaving his defender in the dust. Over and over Butler went into, at and through whoever was in front of him after some Spoelstra-designed actions to shake James.
Without Bam Adebayo for the last two games, the HEAT have been forced to be a different team. Adebayo is both so central and essential to everything they try to do offensively that it’s impossible to fully replicate even with players in possessions of similar skills. Instead of trying to be the HEAT with Adebayo when Adebayo wasn’t playing, the HEAT settled on something a little different in many of Game 3’s most important stretches. Put four shooters on the floor, put the ball in Butler’s hands and make the defense pick a poison.
If you found yourself wondering how Butler got so many one-on-one attacks against favorable matchups, that’s how. It was evident in Game 2 that the Lakers were selling out to stop the HEAT’s shooters, pressuring them off screens in such a way that it freed up rim rollers when they slipped out of contact. Miami couldn’t get a stop that night, but they scored plenty as they hung 50-40-90 shooting percentages on one of the league’s top defenses.
In Game 3 those free rolls were still there, but more often than not the Lakers found a way to stick with shooters and chose to play Butler one-on-one.
Butler kept going right for the chest.
Butler ran 33 pick-and-rolls. The HEAT scored 1.43 points per possession when it resulted in an attack or assist opportunity.
Butler drove to the rim 24 times, per Second Spectrum, the same number he had in Game 2. Of the 22 he used, he produced 31 team points.
When things flattened out and it was squarely on Butler to make a play, he produced 14 points out of 12 isolations, two off his season high. On any possession that Butler touched the ball, the HEAT scored 1.26 points per. Butler had 131 touches.
“I got the easy job,” Butler said. “These guys create so much space for me, I get to shoot whenever I’m open, pass whenever I’m not.”
We’re often using the term ‘produced’ because it wasn’t just about Butler scoring or drawing fouls. He had those 13 assists, too. When the Lakers grew tired of Butler attacking in space, help was punished.
“When he’s getting to the basket, all five guys are looking at him,” Tyler Herro said. “Obviously we have a couple guys that are more than capable at shooting.”
“You can’t leave those guys, because if you do I’m passing it to them,” Butler said.”
What mattered most was that those spread lineups held up defensively. Brilliant as Butler was, he was nearly as impressive in Game 2 albeit with a lower scoring total (25 points). In Game 3 the HEAT got stops, throwing more bodies at Anthony Davis (in foul trouble for most of the first three quarters) in man-to-man coverage and helping on James wherever possible. After posting the third-worst Defensive Rating ever (134.8), Miami’s defensive effort (104.0) equaled those we saw earlier in the playoffs against Indiana and Milwaukee. The Lakers hadn’t been outscored by 26 points with Davis on the floor all season until Sunday night, and his 50 touches were a postseason-low aside from a 17-minute, blowout victory over Portland in the first round.
Butler was a huge part of that, too, staying attached to James for a full eight minutes of his 44 minutes night and somehow never tiring despite hitting the floor multiple times.
“This is why Jimmy prepares the way he does, years round, is to deal with that physicality,” Spoelstra said. “To draw fouls and take contact and to be able to get up and make the free-throws.”
The Lakers still have James and Davis. They still lead 2-1, and the health of Miami’s injured players is still in question. We have only just entered the midpoint of the series. But win or lose, like Roy McAvoy’s 12 with a more positive spin, nobody will soon forget Butler’s stubborn 40. It was and will be immortal.
Toward the end of that November conversation, Butler made sure to note that he wanted to know how the team would respond to adversity, having not lost two in a row to that point. In some ways, he never really found out. Five times the HEAT faced consecutive losses and four times they responded with a win, only losing three in a row while shorthanded on a West Coast trip around the trade deadline. There were no cracks in the façade. The lines never broke. A team that seemingly came together over a single offseason cruised through the regular season like a team that had been together for years, with a leader who was both new and seemed to have been in Miami all along. The gravy train never came to a stop. Until the NBA Finals, they never trailed in a playoff series.
It wasn’t until this week that Butler found what he was looking for, with his team on the verge of losing three-straight with a championship on the line. Given the role he played, maybe he had the answer all along.
“It's so settling when you have that type of guy in a really competitive game like this,” Spoelstra said. “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 you have somebody like that that takes on all the pressure for them.”
After a year, can I say I truly know Butler? No. But there is a sincerity to him that reveals itself the more time you spend in his vicinity. Beneath it all is a guy, one that Dwyane Wade vouched for while looking Spoelstra and Pat Riley in the eye, who says he is only about one thing. It’s hard not to believe Butler the way he says that, but it’s impossible not to believe him when he shows it like he just did.
“Everybody remembers winning,” Butler said. “I don’t care how many points you score. All they care about is if you won or lost.”