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Monday, October 05, 2020

Butler Did It: Heat Cool Off Lakers, 115-104

"You're in trouble." That seems like an odd thing to say when you are trailing 2-1 in the NBA Finals, but Jimmy Butler can say whatever he wants after scoring 40 points, grabbing 11 rebounds, passing for 13 assists, swiping two steals, blocking two shots and outdueling LeBron James at both ends of the court to lead the Miami Heat to a 115-104 victory over the L.A. Lakers in game three. Butler shot 14-20 from the field, and had a +20 plus/minus number while playing 45 minutes. It should be noted that Butler clarified after the game that his choice words were not idle trash talk, but rather a response to those same words being spoken to him by James during the first quarter.

Butler led both teams in scoring, rebounding, and assists, and no player exceeded his numbers for steals or blocked shots. It is not an exaggeration to call this one of the most dominant all-around single-game performances in NBA Finals history; players such as Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Moses Malone, and Shaquille O'Neal had games in which they were more dominant in terms of scoring and/or rebounding, but few players have been as dominant across the board.

The Heat were once again without the services of injured All-Star center Bam Adebayo and injured former All-Star guard Goran Dragic, but the Heat made no excuses and looked like a team trying to win a championship, not a team just trying to avoid being swept. 

Tyler Herro struggled with his shot (6-18 field goal shooting) but he finished with 17 points, and Kelly Olynyk contributed 17 points plus seven rebounds in 31 minutes off of the bench as the de facto replacement for Adebayo--Meyers Leonard started at center for the second game in a row, but once again he played minimal minutes (13 in game three, nine in game two). Duncan Robinson (13 points) and Jae Crowder (12 points) also scored in double figures, but Butler was the story: he scored or assisted on 73 points, tied with two Jerry West performances for the second highest such single game total ever in the NBA Finals, trailing only Walt Frazier's 74 points (36 points scored plus 19 assists for another 38 points) in his legendary performance in game seven of the 1970 NBA Finals. Of course Butler--and every other post-1979 player--has the advantage of being able to assist on three point shots, an option not available to West, Frazier, and other great players from the NBA's pre-three point shot era.

LeBron James led the Lakers in scoring (25 points), rebounds (10), assists (eight), and turnovers (eight). He shot 9-16 from the field. Other than the turnovers, his stat line looks great--but the turnovers matter, and most of them were, in tennis parlance, unforced errors. With rare exceptions, James always has great stat lines, and that is a tribute to his greatness and consistency--but it also shows how misleading individual stat lines can be. His career Finals statistics are incredible, and yet he is not only just 3-6 in the Finals but a host of players have been the best player on the court during various Finals games in which James appeared, including Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Kawhi Leonard. Add Jimmy Butler to that list. James has won three Finals MVPs, but he has also watched Parker, Nowitzki, Leonard, Andre Iguodala, and Durant (twice) win Finals MVPs at his expense. 

Anthony Davis had a forgettable game: 15 points on 6-9 field goal shooting, five rebounds, three assists, two steals, five turnovers, and a -26 plus/minus number. Davis picked up three first half fouls, and at halftime he had just five points and one rebound along with five turnovers. He played better in the second half, but not nearly well enough for a player with his skill set who enjoys a significant matchup advantage against the Heat sans Adebayo.

Markieff Morris and Kyle Kuzma each scored 19 points on 6-13 field goal shooting. Rajon Rondo's individual stat line was underwhelming (four points on 2-8 field goal shooting, eight rebounds, five assists), but his +6 plus/minus number reflects how well the Lakers performed during his 28 minutes. The Lakers' bench did their jobs, and no bench player had a negative plus/minus rating. 

The Heat's starters dominated the Lakers' starters, outscoring them 89-51. James lost his individual matchup versus Butler, and Davis barely outscored Duncan Robinson while being outscored by rookie Tyler Herro. If the Lakers win this series in five, six or even seven games, game three will be forgiven if not totally forgotten--but if this performance is the turning point in the series then that does not reflect well on James or Davis.

While media members spent the pregame show preparing James' coronation and talking about where he should be placed on basketball's proverbial Mt. Rushmore, the Heat demonstrated that they will not submit meekly. The Heat jumped out to a 16-8 lead as the Lakers committed five early turnovers. The Lakers trimmed the deficit to three, 26-23, by the end of the first stanza. The Heat hit seven of their first eight field goal attempts, but then made just four of their next 20 shots, and the Lakers took the lead, 32-30, on Davis' three pointer, his first made field goal of the game. 

Butler had 19 points in the first half--including 11 in the second quarter--plus six rebounds and six assists to lift Miami to a 58-54 halftime lead. He scored 11 points on 3-3 field goal shooting in the third quarter, and the Heat were up 85-80 with 12 minutes to go. James asserted himself early in the fourth quarter, scoring or assisting on the Lakers' first 11 points. Rondo's driving layup capped an 8-0 run, and put the Lakers ahead, 91-89. Butler reasserted control, dribbling the ball up the court for nearly every Heat possession, and making sure that he either scored or created a quality shot for a teammate. Butler also accepted the challenge of guarding James. The Heat outscored the Lakers 26-13 down the stretch.

The game ended in fitting and symbolic fashion, with James leading the Lakers off of the court before the final buzzer; the referees had to summon five Lakers back on to the court for the final inbounds play. 

The Miami Heat culture is refreshing: no tanking, no quitting, no excuses, no complaining. Just play ball, and play hard for 48 minutes. 

The analytics and the smart money say that the Lakers will win this series. I have never overreacted to one game, and I will not overreact now--but it is great to see a team and a leader embrace challenges instead of whining about them.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:05 AM



At Tuesday, October 06, 2020 11:15:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

I have to notice Miami barely won that game, so this serie is still for Lakers to lose if anything, which I doubt they will.
Butler isn't as talented to repeat his heroics in 3 more games I'm afraid, and LBJ is too good to lose this time.

At Tuesday, October 06, 2020 5:25:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Miami won by 11 points, which does not qualify as "barely," though one could make the cliched argument that the game was closer than the final score indicated.

Of course the Lakers are still in control of the series. They have the better and healthier team, and they only need to win two games out of four, while the Heat need to win three games out of four. However, if the Heat win tonight then the series is tied, and we have seen that home court advantage does not exist in the bubble, which is helpful to the "road" team (Miami in this series).


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