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Saturday, October 10, 2020

Butler and James Play Masterfully as Heat Outlast Lakers, 111-108

Game five of the 2020 NBA Finals will long be remembered, whether as the start of Miami's comeback from a 3-1 deficit, or one of the challenges L.A. overcame en route to the championship. The Heat and Lakers engaged in an epic duel that was not decided until the final seconds, with the Heat prevailing 111-108 to extend their season for at least one more game. 

Jimmy Butler once again led the Heat in scoring (35 points), rebounds (12) and assists (11), amassing his second 30 point triple double of the Finals. He is just the sixth player to have more than one triple double in the same Finals, joining Magic Johnson (who had at least two triple doubles in three different Finals), LeBron James (who also had at least two triple doubles in three different Finals), Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, and Draymond Green. Butler shot 11-19 from the field and 12-12 from the free throw line, including the two free throws that put Miami up for good, 109-108, with 16.8 seconds remaining. 

Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra shortened his rotation to just seven players, taking reserve big man Kelly Olynyk out of the lineup. Goran Dragic did not play due to injury, and All-Star center Bam Adebayo had a subpar game (13 points, four rebounds, four assists, 5-12 field goal shooting), perhaps due to lingering effects from his neck injury; Adebayo repeatedly fumbled the ball, he seemed tentative, and he even missed a two-handed dunk. Duncan Robinson provided clutch scoring/shooting, finishing with 26 points on 8-15 field goal shooting (including 7-13 from three point range). Robinson is by no means a defensive stopper, but he held his own at that end of the court and even drew a charge against LeBron James that led to the Lakers using (and losing) their only challenge--and a timeout that could have potentially been quite valuable in the final seconds of the game, as Tim Legler mentioned during his SportsCenter segment. Every Heat player who played scored in double figures except for Andre Iguodala, who did not make a shot in 20 minutes but did grab six rebounds.

LeBron James had one of his best Finals games ever, which is saying something considering his extensive Finals resume: 40 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists, 15-21 field goal shooting (including 6-9 from long distance). He played almost flawlessly: he attacked the paint to score from start to finish, he passed only when his driving lanes were cut off, and he converted at a tremendous clip from three point range when he was left open in transition or on switches. He and Butler both played at the highest possible level.

Anthony Davis was hobbled with less than a minute to go in the first quarter when he reinjured his right heel, and he limped noticeably at various times the rest of the way, but he still contributed 28 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, three blocked shots, and three steals while shooting 9-15 from the field. Nine Lakers played but only one other Laker scored in double figures: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who had 16 points. 

The game had a back and forth flow from the start, and that remained true until the end, even though the Heat briefly built double digit leads a few times. One key sequence that may be overlooked happened during the third quarter. Dwight Howard committed a flagrant foul against Butler as Butler completed a putback. Butler drained the free throw, snared an offensive rebound on the ensuing possession, and promptly dished to Robinson for a three pointer. That rare six point play put the Heat up 76-70 in a game when every point proved to be very significant. The Heat never trailed from the first quarter until Caldwell-Pope's three pointer at the 6:18 mark of the fourth quarter put the Lakers up 97-96. That shot capped off a run that erased Miami's last double digit lead of the night. A lesser team than Miami might have collapsed at that point, but the Heat kept battling on every possession, even though Butler seemed to be drawing his last breath while standing on his last legs. 

ABC's Mark Jackson compared the fourth quarter to the final round of the classic third Ali-Frazier fight; that was hyperbole, but not by much. Butler scored eight points on 2-6 field goal shooting in the final stanza while also passing for one assist and grabbing three rebounds; James scored 12 points on 4-7 field goal shooting while also crashing the boards for seven rebounds and passing for two assists. You could see Butler wearing down, but he perked up when the Heat needed him the most. Butler's jumper put the Heat up 103-101, but James immediately countered with a three point play to give the Lakers a 104-103 lead. Butler answered with a turnaround jumper to make the score 105-104, Heat. James' putback gave the Lakers a 106-105 edge but then Butler drove, drew a foul, and drained two free throws for a 107-106 Heat lead. Davis' putback made the score 108-107 Lakers but Butler drew another foul and again made both free throws to give the Heat the lead for good, 109-108. The Heat made a final defensive stand, and then Tyler Herro sealed the win with two free throws. During that crucial defensive stand, the Heat played the "anyone beat us but LeBron defense." After the Heat prevented James from driving, he dished to Danny Green, who missed a wide open three pointer from the top of the key with 7.1 seconds left. That shot could have clinched the title for the Lakers, and earned Green a place in Lakers' history alongside such non-star clutch championship shot makers as Robert Horry and Derek Fisher.

In a normal season, this game would have been played in L.A., with game six in Miami and game seven (if necessary) in L.A.--but now all of the games are played in the Orlando "bubble," meaning that home court advantage does not exist. Denver twice came back from 3-1 deficits during the "bubble" playoffs, and the Lakers were the only first or second seeded team from either conference to advance to the Conference Finals. Miami has proven to be a team that plays hard every night and will not quit. There is every reason to believe that game six will not be decided until the final minutes, if not the final seconds--and thus there is a decent chance that this series will go the distance. Anthony Davis' health could turn out to be critical; the Heat have survived with a hobbled Adebayo and without Goran Dragic but the Lakers may not be able to get one more win if Davis is not 100%.

The Lakers wore their Kobe Bryant/Black Mamba uniforms during game five, and this is the first time they lost while wearing the tribute gear. Kobe Bryant's spirit is never far from the thoughts of basketball fans this season, and this is particularly true for Lakers' fans, so it is fitting to recall the words of Tex Winter that Bryant often quoted: "Everything turns on a trifle." If Green made that three pointer--or if any one of a dozen plays turned out differently--then James would be a four-time champion and likely a four-time Finals MVP. Instead, by Tuesday night we may be talking about how James' heavily favored Lakers blew a 3-1 lead and how James was outplayed by Finals MVP Butler. James' greatness will not increase or decrease in the next few days, but how he is perceived will be significantly affected by how this series concludes. To some extent that is fair--James is the best player, and he has the opportunity to have a big impact on the result--but to some extent that is not fair, because James could play at a high level (as he did in game five) only to still fall short.

It is one thing to realize that we are watching what will later be viewed as a historic series, but it is another thing to try to shape the narrative before we even know how the story ends; it makes more sense to just enjoy what we are watching: LeBron James is still a magnificent player after all these years, and Jimmy Butler is showing the world what he can do when playing for an organization that has a competitive mindset and fire like he does. Anthony Davis is a marvelously skilled big man. The Heat's roster is full of scrappy players, ranging from a veteran who is a former Finals MVP (Andre Iguodala) to young guys on the rise (Adebayo, Robinson, Herro). The Lakers also feature a mixture of past stars (Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo) and promising young players (Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso).

People can make bold proclamations or predictions, but the reality is that we do not know what will happen next--and that unscripted drama is the NBA at its best. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:55 AM



At Saturday, October 10, 2020 3:33:00 AM, Blogger Keith said...

Excellent game. And probably one that will go down as one of those classic playoff duels, like Bird vs Dominique. LeBron played as great as could possibly be expected considering his age. I don't think I've ever seen him shoot that well from deep in such a crucial game before.

AD put up nice statistics overall but I barely noticed him down the stretch. Which seems to be a recurring issue this serirs. He is nursing an injury but I also must say I think he has a tendency to "carry on" more than a little bit. Especially considering Butler and the Heat are playing their hearts out with their own respective injuries.

At Saturday, October 10, 2020 11:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, that was one of the best games I've seen in a long time. I thought of the Bird-Nique comparison, but that was an elimination game for both players while this was only an elimination game for Butler. LeBron James versus Paul Pierce from 2008 also comes to mind.

At one point, Van Gundy said something to the effect of, "You know what happens when LeBron shoots like this (against your team)? You lose." I had that thought at one point during the game: this is the shot the Heat want him to take but if he takes and makes enough of them then the Lakers will win and there is nothing that the Heat can do about it. It's not like you are going to design a defense that chases LeBron off of the three point line and invites him to attack the paint.

You can never know how much pain a player has or how injured he is, but let's just say that some players seem to be tougher than others--and Davis does not seem to be built along the lines of MJ or Kobe in that regard. No one even talks about Butler's ankle now, because he doesn't talk about it. Kobe was like that. He only talked about injuries if you asked. I saw Kobe's finger up close when he had the avulsion fracture, and it was a swollen, purple mess. He just laughed it off and talked about learning how to change how he held the ball to shoot and pass.


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