Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
It would have been poetic for Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat to go down fighting in Game 5 against the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday—a fitting, noble end for a player and team that define themselves by defiance and heart and a rugged refusal to quit.
Thing is, if you fight the whole time you’re going down, if you never stop swinging despite tumbling over the edge of exhaustion, sometimes you manage to knock the other guy out.
Butler, in his second historically brilliant performance of this year’s Finals, sat for a grand total of 48 seconds during Miami’s inspired 111-108 win over the Lakers, finishing with 35 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists and five steals on 11-of-19 shooting from the field and a perfect 12-of-12 effort from the foul line.
Miami’s leader traded haymakers with LeBron James (who capital W wanted this one) throughout the game and even out-dueled him during a breathless fourth-quarter stretch. Every time James attacked the rim and finished, Butler responded.
The defining sequence for Butler began at the 3:42 mark of the fourth quarter with his team trailing by one and everyone on the floor running on fumes. Butler blocked a layup attempt by James, stole the ball from Alex Caruso and assisted on a Duncan Robinson three that gave Miami the lead. From that point on, the game swung back and forth, one team taking and then losing the advantage on nearly every trip down the floor.
It was Butler who wrested the lead back from the Lakers four times in the final 1:51 of the contest—twice with contested jumpers and twice from the foul line. The 109-108 advantage on his 12th free throw of the night secured with 16.8 seconds left ultimately held up. Tyler Herro’s two free throws iced the affair.
Much has been made of the Heat’s no-nonsense, hypercompetitive, commitment-to-work culture during these playoffs. If they could distill what they want from their players into a short film reel, they could hardly do better than Butler’s closing stretch.
There’s a reason he’s been so often described as a perfect fit in Miami.
What happened Friday makes that description seem a little off. It’s not so much that Butler’s values and approach align with Miami’s, which they do. Instead, it feels more accurate to say he elevates the characteristics the Heat value, bringing everyone with him on the ascent.
Butler didn’t win Game 5 and avoid elimination on his own.
Duncan Robinson hit seven threes and scored 26 points, his constant sprinting off the ball whipping Lakers defenders into a panicked frenzy. Butler had something to do with that.
Kendrick Nunn came off the bench to score 14 points in 28 minutes, giving the Heat a downhill attacker in the pick-and-roll and putting pressure on L.A.’s defense in ways Goran Dragic would have if he’d been healthy enough to play.
Bam Adebayo turned in several key defensive stops in high-leverage moments, but he wasn’t satisfied with what he provided for his star teammate.
Maybe those three would be performing this well for some other team, in some other situation. But when you consider Robinson was undrafted, Nunn had been out of Miami’s rotation just days ago and Adebayo was taking James’ head-down drives to the chest while obviously playing hurt, it’s hard not to think they’ve somehow been empowered by Butler’s leadership and willingness to put absolutely everything on the line.
The Heat can put their players through punishing conditioning drills and practice harder than most. They can define themselves by work.
But there’s just something more powerful about seeing a player push himself beyond every conceivable limit, which is what Butler did.
Erik Spoelstra has seen plenty of greats, one of whom is on the team he’s trying to beat, and even he was moved.
The result may be only a brief stay of execution. James was just as good as Butler, finishing with 40 points, 13 boards and seven assists on a ridiculous 15-of-21 night from the field. He’s playing in his 10th Finals and understands better than almost anyone alive that nothing about success at this level is easy. His Lakers are still up 3-2 and were a missed (wiiiiiide open) Danny Green three from being up to their ice-wrapped knees in champagne right now.
But this is officially a series again. The Heat effectively countered L.A.’s once-successful tactics against Butler. Anthony Davis again took the bulk of the reps guarding Butler, but Miami threw in some tweaks to make sure AD’s shutdown work would be a one-time thing. Whether altering the angle of the screens set for him or quickly pivoting into pitch actions to turn Butler into a roller instead of a ball-handler, Miami liberated its best player.
Davis, who left the game after aggravating a heel injury and was clearly hobbled again for most of crunch time, may not be his whole self for Game 6. To be fair, AD is the unofficial league leader in ugly spills and “oh no, he’s out for months” grimaces that turn out to be no big deal. But if he’s not in peak form, that’s another foot in the door for a Heat team that already believes it can kick the damn thing down.
And can James be any better? He hit threes from the logo, turned seemingly every Heat miss into a runout the other way and set up what should have been the game-winner. It’s probably not wise to assume he’ll be the one to blink first, but you’ll forgive some skepticism in light of Butler and the Heat’s latest entry in a growing list of impossible feats.
Miami may still go, but we know now that it won’t go quietly.
If all Butler did on Friday was stubbornly say “not tonight” to the Lakers, it’ll stand as an on-brand last gasp, a parting sneer of admirable grit. He and the Heat could certainly be forgiven for succumbing to fatigue and the overwhelming star power they’ve fought all series. A loss in Game 6 wouldn’t be a shock.
But there’s no way Butler and the teammates he’s led are thinking about symbolic victories or honorable defeats. They have to believe their Game 5 victory was a turning of the tide.
After what we all saw on Friday, how could they not?