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Here Comes “Trouble” for the Lakers

Jimmy Butler nearly single-handedly brought the Heat back to life in the NBA Finals with a 40-point triple-double in Game 3 to beat the Lakers

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“We’re going to fight, and we’re going to ride with this thing until the wheels fall off,” Jimmy Butler told reporters after an excellent individual outing in Game 2 of the 2020 NBA Finals that wasn’t quite excellent enough against the massive and massively favored Lakers. “It’s not over. We’re just down 0-2. So we got to do something special.”

Let it never be said that Jimmy Buckets isn’t a man of his word.

With linchpin teammates Bam Adebayo (neck strain) and Goran Dragic (torn left plantar fascia) unable to make it back into the lineup for Sunday’s Game 3, Butler did something very special. He scored a game-high 40 points on wildly efficient shooting (14-for-20 from the field, 12-for-14 at the foul line) with 11 rebounds, 13 assists, two steals, and two blocks in 45 minutes of tireless engine-room work, leading shorthanded Miami to a stunning 115-104 victory that cut L.A.’s lead down to 2-1. Game 4 tips Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET.

“I think we realized that we belong,” Butler told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in an on-court interview after his historic performance. “They can be beat, as long as we do what we’re supposed to do.”

What Butler is supposed to do, especially with Bam and Dragic on the shelf, is absolutely everything on both ends of the court. He is only the third player in league history to put up a 40-point triple-double in an NBA Finals game. One of his two antecedents is portrayed on the basketball that Butler spent most of Sunday night putting in the hole. The other is the guy that Butler spent most of Sunday night guarding—and outshining. One big difference between his game and theirs, though? Jerry West and LeBron James lost in their 40-point triple-double nights. Jimmy won, giving Miami a new lease on life, and handing a Lakers team that had rolled to comfortable victories in games 1 and 2 its first bout with adversity in 2020’s championship round.

In Game 2, Butler served as the engine of a Heat offense that gave the Lakers’ vaunted defense fits, scoring or assisting on 57 of Miami’s 114 points, but the Heat still fell short due to the brilliance of Anthony Davis and LeBron James. Remarkably, Butler reached an even higher level on Sunday, scoring or assisting on 73 of the Heat’s 115 points. The only player who’s ever generated more of his team’s offense in a single Finals game was Walt “Clyde” Frazier in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals—one of the most iconic individual efforts in NBA history, and one that won the Knicks the championship.

Davis’s minutes and defensive aggression were limited throughout the night by foul trouble, and Butler dominated on the interior, scoring a career-high 26 points in the paint; the Lakers, as a team, had 34. He took 17 of his 20 shots either in or on the fringes of the paint, and not a single attempt from beyond the 3-point arc. (He’s the third player ever to score 40 or more in a Finals game without any triple tries, joining Shaquille O’Neal and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Decent company.) He torched Danny Green off the bounce seemingly every time he got that matchup, making the 33-year-old stopper look positively stuck in the mud. (Though, in fairness, Green suffered a hip injury in Game 2.) He muscled his way through Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, and J.R. Smith in the post, in transition, and on straight-line drives in the half court, using his strength, length, and quickness to get all the way to the rim.

When he drew the larger Kyle Kuzma, he switched things up, deploying his shiftiness off the bounce and pristine footwork to get to his preferred spots for short, soft jumpers. He knocked down stop-and-pop Js, and some wild turnaround fadeaways, over the outstretched arms of Markieff Morris on switches. When the occasion called for it, like when the Heat went down by two after a Laker run to retake the lead, he drove right at LeBron, invited contact, and flipped in an off-balance runner to tie the score at 91. Butler roasted everybody Lakers coach Frank Vogel put on him, and did it while setting the table for his teammates: He threaded the needle to feed Meyers Leonard and Kelly Olynyk in the pick-and-roll, rewarded sharp off-ball cuts by Duncan Robinson and Jae Crowder, and took Adebayo’s spot as a dribble handoff fulcrum for Robinson and Tyler Herro to curl around.

In every facet of the game, Butler set the tone. He was relentless in penetrating the paint, quick thinking when discerning when to hunt for his own shot and when to spread the ball around, and tenacious on the glass. In his postgame interview with Nichols, Butler said that the Heat had identified rebounding as a key after giving up 25 offensive boards through the first two games of the series; Miami still gave up 11 offensive rebounds in Game 3, but conceded only six second-chance points, and Butler led all players with his 11 rebounds.

He took on the defensive challenge against James, limiting LeBron to 25 points on 9-for-16 shooting and eight assists while helping harass him into a game-high eight turnovers (just one fewer than the Lakers as a team had in Game 2). He was there on a few timely doubles of Davis, who flourished against the Miami zone in Game 2, but seemed flustered by the Heat switching to man-to-man and ratcheting up the pressure early in Game 3: Davis committed four turnovers in the game’s first eight minutes without taking a shot. (Jimmy also drew an early foul on AD, getting the ball rolling on foul trouble that would plague the superstar big man all night, and prevent Davis from finding an offensive rhythm until the third quarter.) Butler kept feeding Robinson and Herro, even though they’ve been misfiring for most of this series; that confidence paid dividends, as they combined for 30 points and five assists, with Herro scoring eight points in the final seven-plus minutes to help Butler close the door and get the Heat on the board.

After two games, without their best defensive player and their top ball handler, it seemed like Miami was drawing dead in this series. After Game 3, though, things look different. Suddenly, the potential return of Adebayo—and maybe Dragic, although that one seems a longer shot—looms as an X factor in a game that could tie the series. Suddenly, it sure looks like the Heat have figured out how to attack this Lakers defense: Heading into the Finals, L.A. had allowed just 107.9 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, and in the past two games, Miami has busted them up to the tune of 121.2 points-per-100, even without Adebayo and Dragic. Suddenly, after a whisper-quiet 15 points on nine shots with five turnovers, Davis doesn’t look quite so much like Godzilla. (Especially when the Lakers don’t look for his ever-present mismatch in the guts of the game.)

And if LeBron and AD are combining for 40 points instead of 60, then the Lakers need the rest of the roster to pick up the slack. They’re capable—Morris and Kuzma combined for 38 off the bench—but they’re not inevitable. They’re not scary. You can look them in the eye and throw punches back. Especially on a night like Sunday, when the guy on his fourth team in four seasons gives you a reason to believe.

“How else do you say it other than ‘Jimmy effing Butler?’” Spoelstra told reporters after the game. “But this is what he wanted.”

It’s all he’s ever wanted, really. From the earliest days of his rise to stardom in Chicago—when he turned down a four-year, $44 million extension of his rookie contract, bet on himself, became an All-Star, and wound up more than doubling that offer—what Butler wanted was an organization to put its trust in him, to treat him like the foundational superstar he believed himself to be. The Bulls didn’t believe he was that guy, so they shipped him to Minnesota. The Wolves had already committed to Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns as their centerpieces, and didn’t believe he was that guy, so they shipped him to Philadelphia. The Sixers had already committed to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as their linchpins, and didn’t believe he was that guy, so they let him go to Miami in a sign-and-trade. The Heat believed he was their guy, and Game 3 stands as confirmation—of everything he’s ever thought he was, and of everything Miami has invested in him being.

In a no-hope Finals game against one of the two greatest players of all time and the newly crowned dominant force in the sport, Jimmy Butler was the best player on the floor. He made the favorites buckle, and he gave the Heat a chance. Now, all he has to do is do it again.

“I think LeBron has got the best of me way too many times—I respect the guy for it,” Butler said after the game. “But this is a different time now.”