With just around four minutes left to play in last night’s Game 3 of the NBA Finals, and Miami nursing a six-point lead over the Los Angeles Lakers, the Heat ran a little side pick-and-roll action, Tyler Herro setting a ball-screen for an incandescent Jimmy Butler near the right corner, to get Butler matched up with the Lakers’ weakest defender, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
On a night when Heat defenders waged total war all over the court, dogging their assignments through two, three, four screens within single possessions just to deny favorable mismatches, the Lakers, who’d trailed for all but a few scattered possessions, handed this one out with an offhand, imperious largesse. Herro barely grazed Butler’s defender, LeBron James, with the screen. For all that the Lakers resisted the mismatch, the two coaches might just as well have agreed to it a week ago.
All game long, nearly every Laker who forayed into the lane with the ball found himself in a forest of hands and arms, swiping at the ball or raking down across his wrists. This played no small part in the Lakers committing a whopping 19 turnovers on the night, including 10 in the first quarter alone, when Miami’s swarming intensity seemed to catch them totally unaware. And here was Miami’s best player, late and with a lead in the absolute game of his life—a 40-point, 11-rebound, 13-assist triple-double in just shy of 45 grueling minutes of nonstop two-way battling, with two steals and two blocks thrown in—backing his way into the heart of the defense against a smaller, overmatched defender. LeBron, stationed at the free-throw line and staring directly at Butler, seemed poised to rotate down and at least poke at the ball once Butler committed to a move. Anthony Davis, on the opposite block, was one big gather-step away from contesting a shot. Butler took one, two, three, four dribbles, moving Caldwell-Pope back a foot with each one; surely the help would come now… or now… or, no, now. It never arrived. LeBron and Davis just stood there, as Butler pivoted and dropped in a smooth, short turnaround jumper from the middle of the lane—his favorite shot.
It was the emblematic moment of the Lakers’ dopey, flat-footed, dull-eyed performance, a game in which they seemed continually surprised to find that, no, a couple possessions’ worth of focus would not suffice to send the Heat scurrying into the tunnel like cockroaches caught in the light. But it wasn’t the emblematic moment of Butler’s. That arrived a couple minutes earlier.
In the first half, with the Lakers in need of a bucket to steady themselves, LeBron went to one of the signature moves of the latter portion of his career, a sort of bull-rushing back-down move that starts out looking like an ordinary dribble-drive until he suddenly turns his back to the basket in the lane, takes a hard gather-dribble into the body of the defender he caught backpedaling to contain the drive, and bashes that defender under the rim for what’s usually either an easy basket or a trip to the free-throw line. In the first half he’d scored on Butler with it in one of the many moments when the Heat had gummed up the Lakers’ offense by denying them their desired defensive switch. It had a real Okay, fuck you, I’m still LeBron James vibe to it, a reminder that yes, okay, maybe the Heat would rather have Butler than Duncan Robinson guarding LeBron, but even Butler is still just a little guy who can be pushed around in that matchup.
With around six and a half minutes left in the fourth quarter, he went to it again. The Lakers had gained and squandered one of their few leads of the night a couple minutes prior; as they seemed to do each time Los Angeles made a push, the Heat responded with a timeout and a quick run, and now led 99-94. LeBron brought the ball up the left side; Caldwell-Pope set a sort of desultory, speculative screen-like thing on Butler on the wing, seemingly to see whether the Heat were handing out switches as casually as his Lakers. When Butler sagged back toward the lane, seemingly in preparation to duck under the screen, Caldwell-Pope darted toward the corner and LeBron drove hard at Butler: The screen had been a ruse, a trap, designed to give LeBron a long runway to get into Butler’s chest and smash him under the basket. But Butler had seen the trap coming, and had laid one of his own; instead of trying to contain the drive, or setting his feet to try to draw a charge, he anticipated LeBron pivoting to the sudden back-down move, and just kept right on sagging backward. With nothing there to meet and resist that hard gather-dribble, LeBron stumbled, took an extra step, and committed his second traveling violation of the quarter.
This wasn’t quite LeBron soaring out of nowhere to pin Andre Iguodala’s layup against the glass in the final minutes of Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. It was a much lower-leverage moment and an infinitely less visually impressive a play. But it was perhaps the quintessential Jimmy Butler play: Smart, crafty, requiring a genius-level ability to see through and anticipate the action, and also just sort of delightfully dickish. It encapsulated a night when he seemed to be processing the game in at some impossible quantum speed, and put up the single most complete and most admirable individual Finals performance since LeBron himself, against those terrifying Warriors four years ago.
Miami’s Game 3 win likely won’t turn out to have fundamentally rearranged the competitive realities of a series otherwise sharply tilted toward Los Angeles. If anything, that’s part of what gave an otherwise ugly game whatever satisfaction you could take from it. The Lakers may very well stroll away with this championship; based on how they approached last night, at least some of them expected to. But the league’s most stubborn team, led by its most stubborn player, made sure they won’t do it without mud in their eye.