Five things we learned from the Miami Heat’s 115-104 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 3 of the 2020 Finals Sunday in the Orlando bubble:
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1. It’s time to overestimate Jimmy Butler
Because, clearly, underestimating him isn’t working. The Miami Heat’s supremely confident All-Star wing authored one of the best performances in Finals history — 40 points, 11 rebounds, 13 assists, 14-of-20 shooting — and his team needed nearly every bit of it to stave off the dreaded 0-3 plight. (The NBA should maybe consider a “slaughter rule” of declaring a winner in any best-of-seven series that starts out 3-0, since nobody, ever, has survived that. But we digress.)
What must the Chicago Bulls, Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers be thinking today? None of those three was willing to flip the reins on the court or in the locker room to Butler.
The Bulls never really got past drafting Butler with the last pick of the first round in 2011, not when No. 1 Derrick Rose was around, not when they brought in creaky Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo to surround him in 2016.
In Minnesota, Butler couldn’t accept being a tutor to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, not with their spotty efforts, inconsistency and fatter paychecks. So Wolves management freaked when Butler went unprofessional and quit on their team.
With Philadelphia, Butler was destined for third option status again behind Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. He channeled his dislike by upping his brashness, unnerving coach Brett Brown, reportedly chafing with Simmons (another underperforming “savior”) and making Tobias Harris look like the more appropriate No. 3.
Funny how things change. The decision-makers in Chicago and Minnesota are gone, Brown is gone too, all three teams are poking at reset buttons … and Butler is the talk of the NBA for being and doing exactly what those teams didn’t trust (or pay) him to do.
So how to assess Butler? On paper, he still doesn’t merit the “superstar” label. He never has finished higher than All-NBA third team, he doesn’t finish near the top in most statistical categories and even his five All-Star selections got a stain when he begged out of the 2018 game too late to replace him with someone eager to play.
But Butler and the Heat fit each other. He’s the unquestioned leader, he gets the ball when he wants it and nobody on the roster makes within $12 million of his $32.7 million.
In Game 3, Butler became the first player (foe or teammate) to have more points, rebounds and assists in a Finals game in which LeBron James also played. He scored or assisted on 73 of Miami’s points, tied for second-most in a Finals game (Knicks Hall of Famer Walt Frazier had 74 in Game 7, 1970).
And when Butler said he hoped he goes scoreless in a Game 4 victory just to show how little personal stats mean to him, he sounded sincere. “I’m glad my teammates got a lot of trust and faith in me to go out there and hoop like that,” said Butler, who figures to see more traps and double-teams in Game 4. “But like I always say, you guarantee me a win, I could care less.”
Still, Butler joined James (2015) and The Logo Jerry West (1969) as the only players to post 40-point triple-doubles in a Finals game. And only one of those three did it while winning the game.
The Bulls, Wolves and Sixers can take solace, though, in shedding such a disruptor.
2. Anthony Davis won’t be the MVP
Through the first two games at least, and driven somewhat by boredom, a debate raged over which of the Lakers’ two superstars would take home the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy once the confetti stopped falling.
From that tie for first place, Davis now ranks third with Game 3 in the books.
After averaging 33 points and 11.5 rebounds while posting a plus-36 rating in L.A.’s two victories, Davis went belly-up Sunday. He scored 15 points, grabbed five rebounds and was a minus-26. (For comparison, James was minus-4 and the Lakers’ bench guys — even J.R. Smith — were in the black.)
Yes, Davis got in early foul trouble, not all of them worth the predicament they caused. But his stats weren’t down because he got and stayed yanked — he still played 33 minutes. Coach Frank Vogel was hoping his talented big man could find some rhythm in spite of the fouls, but what he got instead was a passive performance.
“It takes away the aggressiveness on both ends of the floor that I’m used to playing with,” Davis said, “and those guys like to take charges or whatever, and you know, try to draw offensive fouls.”
Miami outscored the Lakers in the paint, 52-34. Davis’ team shot more 3-pointers (42) than 2-pointers (37). Neither are ingredients in the West champs’ winning formula.
Davis’ tendencies when playing in foul trouble are worth eyeballing, too. In 31 playoff games, he has had four fouls 13 times. He never has had five, however, nor has he fouled out. That says something about how forcefully he plays with four.
Then again, in the first 12 games with four, Davis still averaged 29.8 points and 10.9 rebounds, while getting up 19.8 shots. He only attempted nine field goals in Game 3, with his points and rebounds cut in half.
3. There will always be something with LeBron
It doesn’t seem to matter how high James climbs on the many all-time lists he’s scaling, like playoff assists or Finals blocks or whatever. People will still find ways to criticize him for something, mostly because he gives them something to criticize.
On rare occasion, it will be something legitimately basketball, like the eight turnovers he had Sunday, part of the Lakers’ miserable 20 (worth 21 points and jacked-up confidence to the Heat). More often, though, it will be something to do with attitude, comments or behavior that rankle even folks who admire James the player and have him at or near the top of their GOAT assessments.
Walking off the court with 10 seconds left in a game your team is about to lose is precisely one of those moments.
James said later he was both frustrated and he lost track of the game circumstances when he bailed. The shot clock forced one last Lakers possession in spite of the margin, with Danny Green having to scramble in from the bench to cover for James. Alex Caruso and Jared Dudley had to do likewise for Rondo and Kyle Kuzma, who also wandered off.
This was a bad look for which James immediately got slapped on social media. OK, it wasn’t the Detroit Pistons exiting in the waning moments of the 1991 East finals without shaking Michael Jordan’s hand. Still, it came across as dismissive, as pouty as the lazy shots James sometimes hoists once things aren’t going the Lakers’ way.
It’s hard being human when you’re a self-proclaimed king, but that’s what the money is for. No one is asking LeBron James at age 35 to play 48 minutes, but he really ought to stick around for the full 48.
4. Tyler Herro has some swag
The comic relief moment of Game 3 came late, when Miami rookie Tyler Herro drove past Rondo for a layup and a foul that put the Heat in front 112-102. The sideline camera caught Herro walking back after that play with a curled lip that had social media jockeys likening him to 1980s punk rocker Billy Idol. Maybe even vintage Elvis.
18-year-old me walking out of the AP Calculus exam. pic.twitter.com/MLkxtJbER5
— John Hollinger (@johnhollinger) October 5, 2020
Let’s not forget that earlier in the game, Herro had an “excuse me, pardon me” moment trying to squeeze past Lakers strongman Markieff Morris, who gave him some chest, a look and some words, lest the slender Herro forget with whom he was dealing. That Herro could go there, his team sitting atop a safe lead by then, made the lip curl funnier.
One way to look at Herro’s transformation from bullied rookie to sneering winner, all in a matter of an hour or so, was as the embodiment of what the Heat do late in games. In the first three quarters of their 18 playoff games, the Heat’s scoring margins are -0.9 points, 0.6 points and -1.1 points. In the fourth? They outscore their foes by an average of 4.6.
That was Herro Sunday. From 3-of-13 for nine points through three quarters to 3-of-5 for eight points in the fourth. That earned him his curled lip.
5. Adebayo and Dragic get more healing time
It’s too early to know, and the Heat decision-makers surely aren’t sharing yet, whether center Bam Adebayo or point guard Goran Dragic will play in Games 4 or 5. Both essential Miami players have missed the past two games, Adebayo with a neck/shoulder strain and Dragic with a torn plantar fascia in his left foot.
But winning even one game in the series buys both players time for treatment and a possible return. If one or both returns for Game 4 Tuesday, he will have had six days since suffering or irritating their injuries in the opener. By Game 5 Friday, it will be eight days.
Neither Adebayo, who is said to be closer, nor Dragic, whose injury is more debilitating, likely would be 100 percent. But even in spurts, they could make the Heat and the Lakers feel as if Miami’s cavalry had arrived. Remember, Willis Reed only took five shots and made two in his fabled Game 7 return for the Knicks in 1970, but it etched his name into NBA annals.
So the Lakers didn’t just keep everybody in the bubble for an extra three days with their inability to sweep this series. They gave the Heat life, and hope.
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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