As insistent as the Miami Heat were that they would come into Game 3 of the NBA Finals squarely in the series, a pall descended over the team as it fell behind 2-0 in unimpressive form. They lost two key starters in Game 1 — defensive ace and offensive facilitator Bam Adebayo and point guard Goran Dragic, a catalyst in the Heat’s playoff run.
This postseason in the bubble has produced some improbable results — the Heat’s Finals berth chief among them — but the NBA rarely produces much madness in its bracket. The Finals rarely sees a scrappy underdog crowned champion. Historically, that’s reserved for the dominant and the dynastic.
Despite being short-handed and down 2-0 to a Los Angeles Lakers team with its two best players at the top of their games, the Heat summoned their pride in Game 3. Miami’s best player turned in one of the most memorable performances in NBA Finals history, while the supporting cast played Heat basketball, something coach Erik Spoelstra said was noticeably absent in the first two blowout losses. Grinding out possessions on both ends of the court, Miami held off the Lakers 115-104 on Sunday night in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, to narrow the series to 2-1.
“How else do you say it other than Jimmy F’ing Butler?” Spoelstra said. “This is what he wanted; this is what we wanted. It’s really hard to analyze or describe Jimmy until you actually feel him between the four lines. He’s a supreme, elite competitor, and we needed it.”
At full strength, the Heat operate a half-court offense with three tentpoles: a pick-and-roll offense initiated by Dragic, offense generated by Adebayo at the high post and freelance-heavy manufacturing by Butler.
With Adebayo and Dragic sidelined, that three-pronged offense was reduced to a single leg. Forget about those nifty three-man actions playing off Adebayo at the elbow, and forget about Dragic’s whirling and probing that sucks the defense in and produces kick-out 3-pointers. The Heat would have to concoct some high-grade lemonade, with Butler — master brewer himself — at the controls.
What the Heat lost in versatility they gained in individual dominance on Sunday evening. Butler was aggressive, crafty, unselfish and, in key moments, sublime. As both playmaker and scorer, Butler owned the half court in Game 3. He scored 40 points, dished out 13 assists and grabbed 11 rebounds. He got to the free throw line 14 times, and he took on the assignment of defending LeBron James for extended stretches.
Among the many remarkable facets of Butler’s performance was that he exacted almost all of his damage in the interior. In an NBA age when a perimeter scorer without a long-range shot is like a front-line starting pitcher without a heater, Butler displays an uncanny ability to control the game with guts and guile.
“He’s always been the type of guy you can depend on [for] whatever you need,” said Heat forward Jae Crowder, a college teammate of Butler’s at Marquette. “He can get a big rebound or big foul or big charge. In college, he was that guy. Whatever you need him to do, he’ll come through. He’s always been that.”
Butler doesn’t bring the otherworldly athleticism of a lottery pick, but rather the sheer will and resourcefulness of a player who was chosen last in the first round of the NBA draft and had to initially clamor and scrap to find minutes in the league. All night, he took on the load of Miami’s scaled-back attack, and he did it without a single attempt from beyond the arc and only two beyond 15 feet.
To be sure, Butler isn’t without some stylistic flourishes — witness the drive, stop, fake, pivot and spin at the rim against Kyle Kuzma in the third quarter. He also is a willing and sly passer — like when he turned a double-screen into a point-blank look at the rim for Kelly Olynyk after he slipped to the hoop and beat the Lakers’ rotation. With Dragic out, Butler is effectively Miami’s point guard, and a pure one at that. He reads the defense, finds the best look — and it doesn’t matter for whom because Butler has the intuition and timing for the what and when.
Not coincidentally, Butler leads a whip-smart basketball team. When they’re humming, the Heat are always hunting for a better look, and they have a persistent ability to keep searching for stuff that can work even when nothing is. This instinct produces some high-level basketball, the sorts of play exhibited in the fourth quarter when Andre Iguodala played volleyball at the foul line and, in a single motion, collected a pass from Kendrick Nunn from the baseline and popped it out to Olynyk for a wide-open 3-pointer.
For the Heat, Butler’s success is the satisfying payoff of a long road back from the Big Three era. When James departed in 2014, the Heat still boasted a strong roster of veteran pros who understood the Heat Way. But though they overachieved on an annual basis by posting win totals that exceeded their talent level, they had won only a single playoff series in their previous five seasons. Until about eight weeks ago, the Heat had been a team more admired than feared the past several years.
But a structure endures, especially when you’re as committed to it as the Heat organization is. So when players like Butler come along who know how to impact winning, they can be quickly absorbed and immediately offered the environment to go to work.
Like previous seasons, this Heat team got the most out of its talent; the difference this season is that they have more of it, which lifted the ceiling far higher than those on the outside anticipated. The probabilities are working against Miami, as is the medical report. The Heat roundly reject that they’re playing with house money.
But prideful as they are, they have wildly exceeded expectations, whatever the outcome of this Finals. The Heat have reestablished themselves as a premier team and organization that knows how to both build and maintain. It’s an accelerated track in Miami, and while the Heat were assembling a decent but unexceptional regular season, they were actually on the steepest part of the learning curve. When other teams plateaued in the bubble, the Heat were still climbing that slope.