The Importance of Jimmy Butler's Defensive Performance on LeBron James

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The Importance of Jimmy Butler's Defensive Performance on LeBron James
Associated Press

Even when LeBron James has "bad" offensive outings, he still wins.

Miami's record in four seasons when James scores 20 points or less including the playoffs: 50-20, per Basketball-reference.com.

Sunday was one of those rare occasions when an off-day by James was enough to beat the Heat, though it took more than 48 minutes for the Bulls to do so.

And they have Jimmy Butler to thank.

For much of the season, it appeared that Indiana would capture the top seed in the East. With Chicago angling towards the fourth seed, the two best defensive teams in the league were on a collision course to meet in the second round of the playoffs.

But with Miami and the Pacers hitting respective rough patches, and Chicago just two games back of Toronto in the loss column, there's a legitimate chance of another Bulls-Heat playoff series. John Hollinger's Playoff Odds have Miami taking the top overall seed in the East and the Bulls finishing fourth.

Should that reality come to pass, the Butler-James dynamic jumps to the forefront. And as heroic as Butler's efforts were on James in last year's playoffs, he'll have to be better.

In 67 playoff games with the Heat, James has only been "limited" to 20 points or less on 50 percent or less shooting from the field 11 times, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Miami still won five of those games. It's only happened in the same series twice—by Dallas in the 2011 Finals and San Antonio in last year's Finals.

Still, "limiting" James offensively is the only way to get the upper hand on Miami over an entire series.

Butler did quite a job of that on Sunday. To him, it's just another day at the office.

James came within one rebound and two assists of a triple-double on Sunday. He also made just one basket upon re-entering a tied game with 6:33 left in the fourth quarter and one more in overtime, despite taking nine shots. Chicago outscored the Heat 21-14 in that span.

Butler's confidence when guarding James is the highest its ever been, and it showed. He has cemented himself as one of James' three biggest adversaries on defense:

Paul George obviously being the third.

No moment was more indicative of that than the last possession in regulation.

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James held the ball near midcourt with 20 seconds on the clock. Butler got right in his face, making sure not to give an inch despite James' prowess at taking players off the dribble.

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James didn't put the ball on the floor until there were just seven seconds remaining. From there, Butler fought through a Mario Chalmers screen, recovered position on James on the other side of the arc, and rode him into the paint before poking the ball away to extend the game.

The precision needed to avoid a hand-check in that situation is astounding. Taking into account James' strength and quickness attacking the rim and you can't help but be impressed.

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Compare that to a nearly identical play that happened two minutes earlier.

With the score knotted at 82, James began from the same spot and shaded to the right on a Chalmers screen. He attacked the basket, Butler there every step of the way, and lost the ball on an equally cheeky strip.

Notice, though, that Joakim Noah arrived with the help D in this instance while bailing out toward the three-point line in the first play. Without Noah waiting in the paint, James had no need to keep the ball down an extra split second.

This game was about more than the fourth quarter and overtime, though. James played 45 minutes and Butler was on the court for every one of them (and two more).

He and the rest of Chicago's defense did something to James that hadn't been done since his Cleveland days:

(The Spurs did hold him without a free throw attempt in Game 3 of the 2013 Finals.)

Now, James was uncharacteristically reluctant to attack the basket against Chicago and has been for the past few games.

But the guy still has shot more free throws than all but seven players this season.

Butler deserves credit for finding the perfect balance between getting up in James' face and backing off to avoid fouls. Aside from a transition layup in the first quarter, Butler contested every shot James took against him with either a hand or a body.

Forcing James into an off shooting night appears to be Miami's kryptonite. They've lost 92 games in the "Big Three" era. Per Basketball-Reference.com, he's shot under 50 percent in 55 of them.

With what we know "Jimmy Buckets" can do against LeBron, a matchup with Indiana and George looks like a walk in the park.

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