This was it: the moment when the remarkable would finally give way to the inevitable.
Jimmy Butler had been brilliant through the first three and a half quarters of Game 5, putting up his second triple-double of the 2020 NBA Finals to keep the Lakers at arm’s length. But he’d gotten just 48 seconds of rest in that span, with Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra cutting his rotation to the bone and leaning hard on his superstar to give Miami its best chance of staving off elimination. Butler hadn’t scored since Dwight Howard cleaned him out with a flagrant-1 on a putback midway through the third. On a pull-up 3-point attempt with just under seven minutes to go, it looked like his legs had deserted him; on a costly turnover in transition shortly thereafter that led to a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope runout dunk, it seemed like his focus had, too.
That dunk capped a 14-3 L.A. run that put the Lakers up 99-96 with 5:32 to go. After everything he’d done, and he’d done everything, Butler was on the wrong side of the scoreboard and staring down the barrel of LeBron James in a closeout game; this was the Heat’s season, slipping away, unless Jimmy could find a drop or two of gas in his tank to hit the accelerator again.
Which, naturally, is exactly what he did.
Butler went toe-to-toe with James—the greatest player of his generation, smelling blood in the water minutes away from his fourth championship, throwing lightning bolts at the Heat all night long to the tune of 40 points on 15-for-21 shooting and a 6-for-8 mark from 3-point land (the most 3s he’s ever made in a Finals game), 13 rebounds, and seven assists in 42 minutes—and once again not only lived to tell the tale, but burnished his own now firmly established legend in the process. He scored or assisted on 11 of the Heat’s final 15 points in crunch time on Friday; the Lakers, as a team, managed just nine. That final burst was the difference, as Miami stayed alive, 111-108, to keep the confetti cannons on standby, the Larry O’Brien Trophy in its case, and Game 6 on the schedule for Sunday. Inevitability is for suckers, anyway.
One game after being held largely in check by the menacing Anthony Davis, Butler was every ounce as transcendent as he was in Game 3. He finished with 35 points on 11-for-19 shooting, 12 rebounds, 11 assists, five steals, and a block in more than 47 minutes of work. He exerted himself all night long, guarding James (and at times Davis) on one end while trying everything he could on the other to shake his 6-foot-11 shadow.
He ran side pick-and-rolls with empty corners to get himself some space to operate. He triggered dribble handoffs to free up shooters like Duncan Robinson (who exploded for a postseason-high 26 points with a franchise postseason record-tying seven 3s) and Tyler Herro (12 points and three assists). He set screens himself, opening up driving lanes for reserve guard Kendrick Nunn (14 points and three assists in 27 huge minutes off the bench) and wreaking havoc on the Laker defense with his rolls to the rim. And when there were no other outs, he trusted himself to improvise against the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up. It didn’t work every time, but it worked sometimes, and in a series where the margins are this thin—these two teams have split the last four games, and have been separated by a grand total of two points in 192 minutes over that span—“sometimes” can be a pretty cool hand.
Spoelstra sings hosannas about Butler’s stamina; after his Game 3 masterpiece, he placed Jimmy in “the top percentile of this entire association, in terms of conditioning.” But this wasn’t really that. What Butler did in those final five and a half minutes—the block on LeBron, the steal on Alex Caruso, those pull-up jumpers, that filthy move on Markieff Morris, those relentless drives to find contact and get to the line, those free throws taken with arms that must have felt like overcooked linguini—wasn’t about not getting tired. It was about being impossibly exhausted, refusing to give a shit, and going again. And again. And again.
Sometimes, players make greatness look effortless. Sometimes, though, it looks like this.
Jimmy Butler is absolutely exhausted and still giving it everything he has. pic.twitter.com/fh9ENosqvG— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) October 10, 2020
“That’s what it’s all about,” Spoelstra said of that moment—the moment when Butler looked to have given everything he had, but knew, with 46 seconds left and the game in the balance, that he had to find more to give. “That’s an image of a champion before you’re a champion.”
Butler and the Heat are still two unlikely wins away from becoming champions—which is to say, they are still galaxies away from their goal. For the moment, though, that’s less important to them than the fact that L.A. remains one win away, despite the 35-year-old James emptying out his own gas tank in one of the finest Finals performances of his illustrious career and Davis coming back from what looked like a nasty heel injury to finish with 28 points and 12 rebounds in 42 minutes.
When the most devastating duo in the league combines to produce 87 points in a closeout game, you expect the evening to end in champagne. But when the rest of the roster—a quality collection of role players that has ably comprised a “third star by committee” in these playoffs—scores just 40 points on 14-for-46 shooting … well, that’ll leave a slightly more bitter taste. The pain from Danny Green missing what could’ve been a title-winning 3 off a kickout from LeBron on L.A.’s final possession, and Markieff Morris grabbing the offensive rebound and throwing the ball to nowhere in particular, could linger quite a bit. That’s especially true if Davis—who was noticeably limping late in the fourth quarter—is at all hampered by his reaggravated heel injury come Game 6.
Davis, for his part, told reporters after the game that he’d be “fine on Sunday.” The Lakers had better hope he’s right. We saw on Friday that getting monster games from both LeBron and AD doesn’t guarantee victory, but we also saw in Game 3 that getting a quiet game from AD can open the door for a Heat team that doesn’t need an engraved invitation to try to kick it off the hinges, led by a cowboy-boot-wearing badass who simply cannot be told, at this very moment—after becoming the only non-LeBron player ever to put up multiple 30-point triple-doubles in the same Finals series—that there is anybody on this planet who can fuck with him.
That kind of self-belief is a powerful thing. It’s what keeps you going when there’s nothing left in the tank. Butler’s got it, and it got him Game 5 … and if the Lakers don’t bring their best performance of this series on Sunday night, it might just wind up getting him a hell of a lot more than that.