Jimmy Butler Is Exactly the Kind of NBA Superstar Who Can Lead a Miracle

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistOctober 5, 2020

Miami Heat's Jimmy Butler (22) and Miami Heat's Jae Crowder (99) talk between plays during the first half in Game 3 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Associated Press

In his postgame interview, Jimmy Butler said he doesn't care about the individual numbers he put up in the Miami Heat's improbable 115-104 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.

That doesn't make his performance in Game 3 of the 2020 NBA Finals any less astonishing.

With Goran Dragic (Miami's leading playoff scorer prior to the Finals) and Bam Adebayo (an All-Star in 2020) out and his team facing a 2-0 deficit against the star-powered Lakers, Butler totaled 40 points, 13 assists, 11 rebounds, two steals and two blocks.

Simply put, it was one of the greatest individual performances in the history of the NBA's brightest stage.

The only other 40-point triple-doubles in Finals history belong to Jerry West in 1969 and LeBron James, who had an on-court view of this Butler masterpiece, in 2015.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

According to game score, which provides "a rough measure of a player's productivity for a single game," it was the second-best Finals performance since complete box scores were available (1983-84). The top spot goes to a 2016 performance from LeBron.

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Beyond the fact that they're both in 2020's last series and now prominently feature on the aforementioned leaderboards, Butler and James have a few more things in common.

In 2015, LeBron led a Cleveland Cavaliers team that lost Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to injuries against the West's top seed. Like Butler against L.A., he had to do a lot of everything for Cleveland to remain competitive against the Golden State Warriors.

Now, Miami's underrated superstar will try to pull off what LeBron couldn't in 2015: leveraging the one-man show into a championship.

"We're going to have to be even better than we were tonight," Butler said of winning more games in this series. And he's right.

Starting guards Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro combined to shoot 10-of-30 from the field. The Lakers hit more threes and grabbed more rebounds. Anthony Davis missed much of the first half with foul trouble.

In the absence of more 40-point triple-doubles, the Heat will need to be better on multiple fronts to win three more games.

It's not an entirely uphill battle, though. Miami has a few things working in its favor, which is why FiveThirtyEight's projection model had it beating the Lakers before the series started.

For one, the Heat have multiple players who can provide some semblance of defense against LeBron. No one is going to shut him down completely—James is averaging 27.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 8.7 assists in the series—but Jae Crowder, Andre Iguodala and Butler will at least make him work for that production.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

In Game 3, they bothered him into eight turnovers (two off his career high for a playoff game), and an aggressive Butler will force LeBron to use precious extra energy on defense.

Depth is another feather in Miami's collective cap, which is why it was able to win a game without Dragic and Adebayo.

Kendrick Nunn started much of the season before a COVID-19 diagnosis took him out of the lineup. Being back in a more prominent role shouldn't be uncomfortable for him. Herro, thanks in part to a 37-point performance in the Eastern Conference Finals, has started to emerge as a rising star in the postseason.

Crowder looks like his 2016-17 three-and-D self. Iguodala can provide championship experience, top-tier defense and playmaking in a pinch. Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard can both pull bigs away from the paint with their shooting. Robinson is always a threat to pile up a bunch of threes on any given night.

Winning on Sunday buys time, too. Adebayo (neck strain) and Dragic (torn plantar fascia) were both listed as doubtful ahead of Game 3's tipoff. If they can get back onto the floor at some point in the series, Miami would get even deeper.

Ultimately, though, the Heat winning this series would be largely about Butler. Regardless of what happens, he's proved he's the kind of star around whom you can build a championship contender.

The third-team All-NBA selection was 10th in the league in box plus/minus this season, and the fierce competitiveness that made him a mismatch with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers is perfect for face-of-the-franchise status with the Heat.

In Miami, his relentlessness is prized above some of the characteristics he lacks that are common to other modern stars.

Butler has eschewed the three-point revolution. He attempted 2.1 per game this season, his lowest average since 2012-13, and he attacks the basket like a wing from an earlier era. He was 13th in the league in drives per game and fifth in free-throw attempts per game. While plenty in today's game seek trips to the line by stepping back and falling dramatically after a jumper, Butler gets there the old-fashioned way.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

That was on display Sunday when he had 14 attempts from the stripe, all of which were earned. In the second half, he was hammered by Rajon Rondo on a drive. The foul sent Butler and his left elbow rapidly crashing to the hardwood. His reaction? Joking with Rondo after catching his breath.

That brings us to another trait that sets Butler apart. Tune in to watch the Heat and you're unlikely to see much complaining or other dramatics from Miami's leader. He's all business. The incessant complaining directed toward officials in many NBA games almost never comes from Butler.

His commitment to defense sets him apart, as well. Possession after possession, he locks in on that end like a stop will win him a title. If he leads his team to enough of the former, the latter is exactly what he might get.

The Heat are trying to become just the fifth team in league history to win the Finals after falling down 2-0. If they do, Butler will be in LeBron's company again. James' 2015-16 Cavs are one of the four teams that have already pulled off the feat.

Butler has already proved capable of doing the unthinkable, though. Per ESPN's Marc J. Spears, Sunday's showing made him the first player with more points, rebounds and assists than LeBron in a Finals game. 

It was a historic individual performance. In the next week and a half, we'll learn whether it was the point at which Miami turned toward making some history of its own.