If the Miami Heat are to lose the NBA Finals, they will go down fighting as the best version of themselves – following the example of their leader Jimmy Butler.
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Down 3-1 to LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers, it will take a herculean effort for the Miami Heat to win the final three games and the NBA championship. In particular, it will take a herculean effort from star swingman Butler, a man always known for his tremendous effort level and work-rate who can now pair that reputation with the legacy of putting in one of the greatest single-game NBA Finals performances of all time.
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In Game 3, Butler recorded a 40-point triple-double, a stat line that reads something like what Michael Jordan in his prime might have done. That is what it took to beat these Lakers. In theory, then, more of the same is the only way back for the Heat.
That said, one of the more laudable aspects of Butler’s ascent to superstardom is the fact he does not try to do too much, like so many of the great ones can be guilty of, including Jordan at his best.
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Although he has re-established himself after a couple of up-and-down years as one of the premier players in the league with his play in this postseason, Butler nevertheless still does not force things offensively. Instead, he is willingly deferential, just as long as those to whom he is deferring work as hard both on and off the court as he does.
Famously demanding, Butler’s success in Miami is directly tied to the fact that his level of hard work and preparation is welcomed rather than feared. That, plus the unabashed willingness to call out anything too lackadaisical or casual that he sees from others (both on the playing staff and the hierarchy above them).
What can be seen as being prickly in other places is embraced in Miami as being a key catalyst for the grittiness that the franchise has prided itself on since its inception. And in practising what he preaches, Butler leads both by force of will and by example.
It is hard to nuance both of those and to also not overly commit to being ‘the man’. After his Game 3 performance, for example, in which he nigh-on won the game single-handedly for his team and entered the history books, Jimmy could have come out all guns blazing in Game 4.
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Instead, he deferred, and it is that deference that has allowed for the growth of other players (Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro in particular) that has given this Heat team enough firepower to get this far.
If anything, perhaps Butler was too deferential for stretches. There were times that he got into the paint in otherwise-stagnant Heat offensive possessions, but when contested at the basket, he tried to find a cutter. Maybe, instead of an off-balance attempt by Herro or the slightly wilder things Kendrick Nunn always tries to do, Butler could have just taken it into the contest, even if he got swatted away. Yet the intent to share the wealth is there. And that intent is a fundamental tenet of the Heat as constructed.
It is fundamental to any team sport that a hierarchy is established, and that, for the greater good, it has to be known who is better at what. For a team to be greater than the sum of its parts takes not only effort, co-ordination, strategy and a cohesive blend of individual talents, but also humility.
This requires the humility of the playing roster to know who the best players are, dovetailing with the humility of said best players to know their limits and where the supporting cast can best shine – the point where those two things meet is the place where all teams aspire to be.
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LeBron, with his passing gifts and ball-sharing instincts, has rightly long been held up as a tremendous example of this. But his opposite number Butler has been with him every step of the way.
Butler cannot pass with the consistency and accuracy of James, and he does not have the straight-line burst and sheer combination of power and explosion that James – amazingly, after 17 seasons in the NBA – still does.
But what he does have is better man-to-man defense, combining good size with a lateral quickness LeBron has lost, a furious tenacity, and tremendous preparation to read opponent’s tendencies.
Butler also possesses the will to get to the foul line. He does this at a stupendous rate, almost James Harden-esque without the theatrics, and without the first step or explosion normally required for such a prolific free-throw rate. At this point, even after nearly a decade in the league and the universal respect of his peers, Butler is still defying both expectation and convention.
In an era where near-enough every player on near-enough every team embraces the three-pointer to a degree never before seen in the sport’s history, Butler spurns this weapon. He does not need the threat of it to be able to get into the paint and to the free-throw line.
Defenders cannot give him space on the perimeter anyway, because, probing with his great body control and unflashy yet highly adept handle, Butler can get to the rim going either way using that space. Defenses want him to raise up and shoot, but he is not one to give in that easily. No one would ever call Butler, or this Heat team, quitters.
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Is it enough? It seems unlikely, even to Heat fans. These Lakers are good; they too are not plagued by hierarchical problems, indecision, selfish stars or a lack of effort. More importantly, they are also in the privileged position of needing only to win one of the next three games.
Nonetheless, even if they do lose the series, be it tonight or otherwise, the Miami Heat will go down fighting as the best version of themselves that they could have imagined.
And until that happens, they are still in it. They won’t quit.
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