Worth the Trouble
By Charlotte Wilder
In Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Jimmy Butler made a layup in the closing moments and then offered a warning to the Lakers by mouthing, “You’re in trouble.”
The Lakers might not be in trouble, but the Heat are certainly in less of it after Butler’s transcendent performance Sunday night. Jimmy “It’s Literally Jimmy” Buckets put up 40 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists, becoming only the third player in NBA history after Jerry West and LeBron James to post a 40-point triple-double in the Finals.
He also became the first player to score, rebound, and assist more than LeBron in a Finals game.
Jimmy played like his hair was on fire. It’s funny — going into Game 3, I remember thinking that the only way the Heat were going to have a chance against Los Angeles was if Jimmy had himself a night. Miami’s best player, Bam Adebayo, and its leading scorer in this postseason, Goran Dragic, were both still out with injuries. Without them, Butler, Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Jae Crowder, and Andre Igoudala just hadn’t been able to stop LeBron, Anthony Davis, Danny Green, Alex Caruso and Co. from steamrolling them.
Perhaps something coach Erik Spoelstra said to the Heat in the locker room ignited a spark in Butler, or maybe being down 2-0 in the Finals is a hell of a drug. Whatever it was, Butler went out there with a level of determination and grit that was enough to save Miami from being one game away from a sweep.
Thank goodness, right? I don’t mind a 17th Lakers championship this year, but I would have minded a coronation over actually competitive basketball. A four-game series would have felt so anticlimactic after how hard the Heat worked to get to the championship round.
On Sunday, Butler was the only one with a prayer of making the Finals interesting. And it was a fitting task for a man who is arguably the most interesting player in the NBA.
The adversity Butler has faced in his life made him the perfect guy to rise to the moment when his team was in danger of getting swept. Many people remember the tumult that followed Butler throughout his career. After the Bulls traded their superstar to begin a rebuild (how’s that going, Chicago?), Butler went to the Timberwolves for a year before exiting unceremoniously after ripping his teammates apart at a practice. He landed with the Sixers, lasting only one season in Philadelphia before opting to sign a deal with Miami. The Heat’s culture of strict boundaries, expectations, and an acceptance of individuality has been a great match for him.
But what fewer people remember is the difficult path Butler had to travel to end up as the star of the NBA Finals. He played basketball at a junior college before he made it to Marquette University, where he eventually became the 30th pick in the 2011 NBA draft. But before that, he was homeless — born in a small Texas town with an absent father, Butler's mother kicked him out of the house when he was 13. He bounced between classmates' houses until his friend Jordan Leslie’s family took him in (Leslie went on to play for the Denver Broncos for a time).
So on Sunday, it was no surprise when Butler played like a man who’s used to overcoming a deficit and knows his reserves of resilience. He was even laughing on the court at times, because he also has a silly side — it’s hard to take yourself too seriously when you're selling your teammates cups of coffee for $20 from inside your hotel room at the NBA Bubble.
Resiliency, determination, heart: Butler displayed all that and more when he put up 40 points without shooting a 3-pointer. Or when he lay on the ground under the basket with his hands over his face, catching his breath after playing so hard, only to get back up and back at it. Or when he had the gumption to tell the Lakers that they were in trouble, only to have LeBron leave the court before the game was officially over.
Butler defiance rubbed off on his teammates in Game 3. You think Tyler Herro would’ve reacted with his legendary snarl if he hadn’t been so jacked up by Butler’s performance?
You only make that face when the energy has reached a crescendo, when you’re really feeling on top of the world. And you only feel on top of the world when you have a teammate to help you get there.
Butler seems to be the catalyst for almost every team he has been on: The last time the Bulls made the playoffs in 2017, Butler was on the team. The last time the Timberwolves reached the postseason in 2018, Jimmy was on the team. Philadelphia’s deepest run with its current core came in 2019, when Butler was on the team.
This year, the trend continues, and it’s becoming clear that Butler deserves a lot more credit than he’s historically gotten.
Who knows what happens to the Heat in the next few games. Who knows if the team will even play more than one after Tuesday night — even with Butler’s insane numbers, Miami almost lost. And if Butler became only the third person ever to put up those numbers in a Finals, it’s hard to see him doing it again, let alone two games in a row when he’s already gassed and he has been living in a hotel room for months.
Butler will need more help than he’s currently getting if there’s a chance the Heat can push the series to six or seven games. Assistance could be on the way; Dragic is still out, but Adebayo is listed as questionable for Tuesday. And other players could step up after seeing how much Butler left out there on the floor.
So maybe the Heat have life. Given everything this year has brought us? Well, stranger things have happened.