LeBron James isn’t supposed to lose close out games. But Jimmy Butler, the man who loves cowboy boots, country music, and sells coffee for $20 a cup out of his hotel room down at Disney World, has never cared much for popular narratives.
So just when we all thought the NBA Finals were about to be wrapped up for James and his Lakers, we got another scintillating performance outta Jimmy to remind us of his excellence and the fallacy of making assumptions in the craziest of NBA seasons.
Facing elimination Friday, the Heat managed to survive to see at least Game 6 thanks to Butler's second monster game of the series that saw him pour in 35 points on 11-of-19 shooting across 47 draining minutes. Just about every NBA observer thought the Lakers would take care of business and put a cap on the bubble. But Butler willed Miami past Los Angeles, 111-108, in the most stressful, exhausting, competitive, and intense contest of these Finals. LA still leads the series, 3-2, but Butler balling like a madman yet again means we need to take Miami much more seriously.
"I left it all out there on the floor along with my guys, and that's how we're going to have to play from here on out," Butler said. "Like I always say, it's win or win for us. But this is the position that we're in. We like it this way. We got two more in a row to get."
Listen, if Miami can get one more great game out of Butler, and his supporting cast can step up like it did Friday, then this series could shockingly be headed to a winner-take-all Game 7 when it looked like it would be a cakewalk for the Lakers a few days ago. The Heat rode Butler Friday—just like it did in Game 3 Sunday—and won a dramatic contest despite James having one of the greatest games of his illustrious Finals history.
If the Lakers had won, it obviously would have been LeBron's night and we would have appropriately showered him in all kinds of flowery praise because he was phenomenal. The King went for 40 points on 15-of-21 shooting, including 6-of-9 from deep, adding 13 boards and 7 assists, as he led the Lakers to within one shot of sealing the franchise's 17th championship. But Danny Green's potential game-winning straight-away 3-pointer with 7.1 seconds to go came up short, Markieff Morris turned the ball over after grabbing the offensive rebound, and instead of the Lakers raising the Larry O'Brien Trophy, we get to revel in Butler pulling off the ridiculous. Again.
Game 6 goes down Sunday. You know Butler can't wait.
"I mean, I'm sure they wanted to win, thought they was going to win coming into it. As did we," Butler said. "But it was a hard-fought game, I think it's going to be even harder for us next game, but I like our chances."
Every bit the alpha dog that LeBron was as he hit clutch shots over Anthony Davis and drove to the basket without abandon, Butler went to the free throw line 12 times and hit all 12 of his free throws. He also had 12 boards and 11 assists. In an elimination game, he was even better than he was when he poured in 40 points in Game 3 and he had more than enough help as his teammates rallied around him for a change. Duncan Robinson was Miami's second-leading scorer with 26 while Kendrick Nunn contributed 14, Bam Adebayo had 13, Tyler Herro added 12, and Jae Crowder had 11. Butler absolutely needed their help, but the Heat's best player is single-handedly making a lot of basketball observers sound stupid for saying this series is the Lakers to lose.
"I know that I'm capable of it, but I got a hell of a group of guys around me that make my job a lot easier," Butler said. "I'm fortunate for those guys because when I pass it to them they make shots. When I get beat going to the rim, they're there. So we're in this thing together and they give me a lot of confidence to go out there and hoop."
The battle between James and Butler down the stretch was incredible entertainment. Game 5 was by far the best of the series and easily one of the best playoff games this season. There were seven lead changes over the final three minutes and James did absolutely everything in his powers to end the series. But LA's final possession was a dud, the Lakers wasted his mammoth performance, and, of course, had no answer for Butler.
Here are six other observations from Game 5.