The NBA Finals began as a mismatch and threatened to become an injury-marred laugher after two games. Now, the event is what it should be: the most riveting, not to mention draining, competition available in this pandemic-burdened sports world. It is exhausting just to watch, but in a hurts-so-good kind of way.
The Miami Heat won’t allow the Los Angeles Lakers to enjoy a painless coronation. Jimmy Butler refuses to quit, even as his body begs for mercy. The Heat didn’t merely resist elimination during a 111-108 victory in a classic Game 5 on Friday night. It stared down LeBron James at his very best and, with Butler leading the way, didn’t flinch.
Star players on more imposing teams have cowered before this version of James, who came within a half-minute of his fourth championship. Butler stood upright and traded blows. It resulted in a fierce battle that changed the tone of the series. In the end, Butler’s team won, somehow. It trimmed its Finals deficit to three games to two. Butler played all but 48 seconds of a 48-minute game, and he was so exhausted down the stretch that he created his own standing eight-count, bending over behind the baseline and praying there would be enough air to satisfy his lungs.
It was an astounding portrait of a desire to win. James finished with 40 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists, but Butler countered with his second triple-double of the Finals: 35 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists. He also added five steals and alternated between guarding James and Anthony Davis for huge chunks of the game.
“Every young player coming into this league should study footage of Jimmy Butler, the definition of a two-way player competing on both ends,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said afterward.
James is one of the great playoff closers in NBA history. He has an incredible sense of the moment and understands the importance of finishing an opponent when it is down. He has never been this brilliant in a closeout game, with a championship at stake, and tasted defeat. That explains how tough the Heat is.
Butler wasn’t Miami’s only standout. Duncan Robinson, whom the Lakers had smothered during this series with their length and athleticism on defense, broke out and contributed 26 points. Six Miami players scored in double figures. Bam Adebayo is slowly regaining his all-star form. Kendrick Nunn has rediscovered his jumper. The Heat is running its intricate offensive system well, and even though it struggles on the boards against the bigger Lakers, it’s scrapping on defense and playing more physical.
It still feels like this series is the Lakers’ to lose. It has taken two Butler triple-doubles for the Heat to scrape together two victories so far. He’s playing the best basketball of his career, channeling LeBron and joining him as the only other player to post multiple triple-doubles with at least 30 points in the championship round. The numbers demand attention, and they back up the impact of Butler’s relentless mentality.
It’s clear that the Lakers are better than the Heat in a vacuum, that they have more of an arsenal and more margin for error. But superiority on paper won’t put away the Heat. Game 1 injuries to Adebayo and Goran Dragic didn’t put Miami away. And now Peak LeBron didn’t put Miami away. You don’t sense the Lakers are panicking about Miami’s resilience. But they must be concerned.
“We’re here to win,” Butler said. “We’re here to win. But these next two, we in the trenches.”
Said Spoelstra: “It’s this kind of competition between four lines, two baskets. You can’t write or print out the winner on this one. This one has to be earned between those four lines, and that’s where our guys thrive.”
The Finals started with an alarming, lopsided vibe. The Lakers either dominated or toyed with the Heat. Since then, it has become a captivating battle of competitive will. Butler had to rise to another level to keep up with James and Davis. Role players on both sides are following suit. It’s unfortunate that another injury may be a factor now: Davis’s bruised heel. Davis said he is fine and will be ready for Game 6 on Sunday, but nonetheless his health is a source of worry for Los Angeles.
The Heat has an opening, and it’s good at exploiting those opportunities.
“It’s the same as when I was playing Golden State all those years,” James said. “You make a mistake; they make you pay. So we have to understand that.”
James vs. Butler isn’t quite the heavyweight bout that the King experienced against Kevin Durant and the Warriors in 2017 and 2018. But outside of Durant, Butler is one of just a few NBA players who could go toe-to-toe with James and not break out in hives. He isn’t paralyzed with respect for the King. He just wants to compete.
“I mean, if you’re the best player in the world, you’re supposed to be able to do that,” Butler said when asked how he handles playing against James when he’s hot. “We keep our head high knowing that he’s not going to hit on some tough ones. That’s what really, really, really great players do. But we ain’t backing down. We ain’t shying away. We can go on the other end and do what we do.
“I think he had a hell of a performance, along with AD, the whole team. But we’re still fighting. We’re in it to win it. We’re not scared of nobody.”
The NBA Finals are back from boredom. It doesn’t feel anticlimactic anymore. It doesn’t feel like the league is crowning a champion just to say it crowned a champion. The Heat is giving it all it has. For the Lakers to outlast Miami, they must empty themselves, too.