ORLANDO — When he was asked about missing two starters for the second consecutive game, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra spoke with resolve and confidence before Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Sunday. It was his decision to hold out Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic, his decision to place faith that his previously overwhelmed team could extend this series and play a perfect game against LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Spoelstra’s confident strut may have been because he still had a healthy Jimmy Butler, one of the more overlooked and sometimes disregarded superstars in this era.
The scrappy Heat punched first, took an early lead, and Butler closed out the Lakers with the same brilliance that he showed in stretches during the Celtics series.
Butler scored 10 of his 40 points in the final quarter and former Celtic Kelly Olynyk added 7 points and a key steal and the Heat turned these Finals into a series, winning, 115-104, at AdventHealth Arena.
Butler, the 31-year-old veteran in his first season with the Heat, added 11 rebounds and 13 assists in a virtuoso performance that essentially saved Miami.
“Look, how do you how else do you say it other than Jimmy effing Butler?” 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. Obviously this was a very desperate urgent game and he was doing it on both ends of the court, just put his imprint on every important part of the game.”
The Heat were 10-point underdogs when it was announced two hours prior to Game 3 that Adebayo (neck) and Dragic (plantar fascia), each of whom were critical to the Heat’s series win over the Celtics, wouldn’t play.
Spoelstra, the bright-minded coach, was relegated to using Olynyk, who didn’t play much in the Eastern Conference finals, along with a bunch of complementary pieces to join Butler in besting the rather erratic Lakers.
Los Angeles committed 19 turnovers, eight by James, while Davis was mired in foul trouble and attempted only nine shots. Despite playing poorly and with little passion through the first three quarters, the Lakers appeared they would get by on their talent.
They went on an 8-0 run to take a 91-89 lead with 8:54 left. Butler then responded with a layup and Olynyk got a fortunate bounce on a 3-pointer as the Heat went on a 16-4 game-stirring run to take the game away from the Lakers.
After the first quarter, James walked by Butler and told him, “You’re in trouble” after the Lakers ended the period on a 14-4 run. During the final period, Butler shot back at James.
“You’re in trouble,” Butler told him.
“I think LeBron has gotten the best of me way too many times,” Butler said. “I respect the guy for it, but this is a different time now, a different group of guys I got around me. We’re here to win. We’re gonna fight in this thing and even it up 2-2.”
That final period was reminiscent to those painful fourth-quarter runs in Games 1, 2, and 6 that beat the Celtics. Butler didn’t resort to 3-pointers. He attacked the basket, drawing a foul on James on a drive or shooting over the smaller Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on a switch. Butler’s game isn’t picturesque or artful. He uses his physicality and stretch to get the basket for short jumpers or layups.
At 6 feet 8 inches, Butler is almost impossible to defend for small forwards and he’s crafty against power forwards. The Lakers put James on Butler, but the Heat would create a switch to put Butler on a smaller player.
“The offensive player is always at the advantage, as long as you can get to your spots to do what you really want to do,” Butler said. “My teammates do that for me because you can’t leave those guys. If you do, I’m passing it to them.”
Meanwhile, Spoelstra used another former Celtic, Jae Crowder, to front Davis in the zone to avoid Davis having target practice in the paint with easy layups and jumpers. The ploy was effective. Crowder was able to offer resistance and then Davis cooperated by getting into foul trouble. Davis never got into any rhythm while James was mistake-prone.
It was the second time in the postseason James has amassed eight turnovers. And he also never put his imprint on the game. The Lakers were carried by Markieff Morris and some key 3-pointers by Kyle Kuzma, but they were unable to give that push down the stretch.
The Heat have been one of the best teams in the bubble because they play so cohesively. In Game 1, they were engulfed by the Lakers' size and physicality and then watched Adebayo and Dragic leave with injuries. They fought hard in Game 2, but didn’t have enough execution to make a late rally.
The hundreds of folks who have been in the bubble for two months or more were anticipating a sweep and were making plans to leave Orlando on Wednesday because Miami was such a decisive underdog. Butler lives to prove doubters wrong under those situations.
He was essentially traded by three teams — Chicago, Minnesota, and Philadelphia — because he was considered difficult to deal with or a demanding teammate or too focused on winning and not focused enough on making friends. Miami wasn’t concerned about Butler making buddies. And he had no regrets as he sought the right situation.
“I tell coach all the time, ‘I’m ready for this,’ ” Butler said. “The biggest stage, whatever he asked me to do, I will do. We’ve got a good team. Like I said I’ve got the easy job. These guys create so much space for me, I get to shoot whenever I’m open.”