So do we have a series? Or did the Heat just delay a Lakers coronation for a few extra evenings?
After a poor performance by LA and Jimmy Butler having the game of his life, Miami has managed to make the NBA Finals a lot closer, and maybe slightly more intriguing, than just about everybody (other than the ultra-confident Butler) thought it’d be following Game 3.
But even after the short-handed Heat manned up for a surprising 115-104 upset victory Sunday over the Lakers behind Butler’s scintillating triple-double—40 points, 11 rebounds, and 12 assists—opinions shouldn’t be swayed. We can give you plenty of reasons why the Lakers let the Heat slip out of the sleeper hold LA should’ve tightened. Like Anthony Davis’s horrid game (he scored just 15 points as he was mired in foul trouble and finished a -26 for the game) or the turnovers or the fact LA was out-hustled and out-muscled following two easy wins to open the series.
For now, though, we’ll give Butler his flowers, because god damn he deserves them. He and his Heat brethren did some impressive work to earn their first win of the Finals and prevent LA from playing for a championship Tuesday.
"How else do you say it other than Jimmy effing Butler?" Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "But 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."
What didn’t Butler do? He set the tone, played 45 exhausting minutes, guarded LeBron James, and carried the Heat offensively in the fourth quarter after the Lakers briefly regained the lead with 8:55 to go after overcoming a 14-point second half deficit. And Butler got his triple-double—the 21st in Finals history—without making or even taking a 3-pointer which is insane for a guard/forward in today’s game.
"Like I said earlier, maybe we just got to play a lot harder and know that that's how we're going to squeak out a win in the end," Butler said, "but there's really not too much to say to our guys, we understand what we have to do."
The Heat won the defensive rebounding battle and clamped down on every LA starter not named LeBron James. Most especially, they didn’t make things easy for Davis—when he was actually on the floor—after AD dominated Miami in Games 1 and 2. Davis was in major foul trouble throughout and was unable to get in any kind of offensive rhythm. But Miami frequently double-teamed and trapped Davis, forcing the ball out of his hands. He finished with the worst +/- rating of the season.
James led the way for the Lakers, finishing with 25 points, 10 boards, and 8 assists while Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris each added 19 as LA’s second-leading scorers. But after those three, there wasn’t much good for the Lakers. Los Angeles didn’t hit their threes like in the first two games of the series. As much as anything, turnovers killed Los Angeles. They were wretched taking care of the ball—they had 10 turnovers in the first quarter when the Lakers got down big. LA finished the contest with 20 turnovers that Miami converted into 17 points.
"They are very good with the stripping," James said. "You can't allow this team to have extra possessions. You can't turn the ball over at that high a rate, especially at this point in the season, as well."
Game 4 is Tuesday and while the Heat now has a major shot of confidence coursing through its veins, let’s be careful saying this all of a sudden is a brand new series. Or suddenly a competitive one. The Lakers played poorly—and that’s putting it nicely. And they easily could've pulled this one out if they hadn't been so incredibly sloppy with the basketball or if AD wasn't spending so much time on the bench. They’re still bigger, stronger, and even when LA’s only playing its B+ game it’s arguably still better than Miami. It took a superhuman effort out of Butler for the Heat—still missing two starters—to steal a victory over the bigger and better Lakers. LA now has to wait until Game 5 on Friday to close out a series (should they take care of business Tuesday) that’s clearly theirs to lose.
"I know how resilient that bunch is and how resilient that coaching staff is and their franchise," James said. "I don't ever feel like we let our guard down. Also, I don't feel like we're concerned. We're not concerned. We know we can play a lot better. We have another opportunity to take a commanding lead on Tuesday. You relish that opportunity."
Here are six other observations from Game 3.