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Jimmy Butler Outplayed LeBron James And Bought Miami Some Breathing Room

It would have been very easy to write off the Miami Heat at different points on Sunday.

Some likely counted them out as soon as the Heat announced that injured star forward Bam Adebayo and guard Goran Dragić, their second-leading scorer, would be forced to miss Game 3. Others likely thought they were done when the Lakers tied the score mere seconds into the second period after an unbelievably sloppy first quarter that saw L.A. end up with more turnovers (10) than field goals (seven).

And if the doubt wasn’t there yet, it likely was by the fourth, when the Lakers surged back from 14 down to take a 91-89 edge — and were just nine minutes from taking a 3-0 series stranglehold.

But the Heat’s flame never burned out in Game 3 because Jimmy Butler wouldn’t let it. Without his two best teammates, Butler became the first player to outscore, outrebound and outassist LeBron James in a Finals game. He posted a ridiculous 40-11-13 line and lifted his short-handed club to a 115-104 victory, bringing Miami within a game of tying the series and possibly buying enough time for Adebayo to return.

Simply put, Butler’s performance was a masterpiece. A subpar perimeter shooter, Butler stuck to what he did best, declining to attempt a single three while instead keeping his foot on the pedal by going to the basket. He got to the line 14 times and shot a highly efficient 70 percent from the floor Sunday.

Another point that can’t be overlooked: Butler logged 45 of the game’s 48 minutes. And looking at plus/minus, it was clear why he had to play so much: Miami was an impressive +20 during Butler’s 45 minutes, but in the three minutes he took a breather, the Heat got outscored by 9.

Aside from Butler, a couple other things played a pretty big role in the outcome of the contest. Anthony Davis got his third foul midway through the second and never found a rhythm. (Sunday marked perhaps his worst and least aggressive showing of the entire postseason.) Miami drastically reduced how often it went zone on D, an alignment the Lakers neutralized in Game 2 with nifty high-low passing between James and Davis. After going zone 67 times in Game 2, Miami used it just seven times in Game 3, according to Second Spectrum.

Ultimately, though, regardless of the other factors, one thing is clear: The Heat weren’t walking out with a Game 3 win unless Butler had a takeover performance like this one. Sharpshooter Duncan Robinson, one of Miami’s best weapons all year, has yet to get things rolling. And while Tyler Herro scored a couple times late, he ultimately shot just 6-of-18 for 17 points.

Kelly Olynyk had a nice shooting game off the bench, helping narrow the enormous gap between Miami’s reserves and those of the Lakers. But at the end of the day, Butler was usually the one setting things up for his teammates. By game’s end, he was responsible for 73 points, either as the scorer or the assist man, the second-most in Finals history, per the Elias Sports Bureau.1

What made the game so different, really, was the fact that it was a rare instance of an opponent thoroughly outplaying James — particularly on a grand stage, at virtually the same position. (With just over a minute left in the fourth, after Butler scored a basket that was essentially a dagger, Butler told James, “You’re in trouble” — something he claimed James had said to him earlier.)

James had a vast impact on the game, too. While his fellow Laker starters were all a -15 or worse throughout the game, James was almost neutral, at a -4, in a game they lost by 11 points. He came up two assists shy of a triple-double and, at 9-of-16, was efficient shooting the ball.

Still, it was unlike him to finish with just as many turnovers (eight) as he had dimes. More concerning: He often matched up with Butler to slow him down defensively, only to then switch assignments after a Miami player would set a screen in hopes of getting Butler an easier defender to go to work on. That situation played out 13 times — or just over half the ball screens Butler got while James was guarding him — per Second Spectrum. Sure enough, Miami scored a blistering 133 points per 100 possessions on direct actions after a switch. (For context: The Dallas Mavericks just posted the most efficient offense in NBA history, scoring 115 points per 100 plays.)

Jimmy Butler was out for blood in Game 3, and he ultimately left the Lakers wounded. They’re nowhere near as banged up as the Heat are. But if Los Angeles isn’t careful in Game 4, and Adebayo does make his return, the series could get more competitive than we all thought it would be.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. It was 1 point shy of the record set by Walt Frazier.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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