LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Biggest moment of his career. Best game of his life.
Jimmy Butler is clearly not ready to go home quite yet. With a triple-double, he joined NBA Finals lore — and the short-handed Miami Heat might have made this title matchup a series after all.
Butler finished with 40 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists, and the Heat beat the Los Angeles Lakers 115-104 on Sunday night to get within 2-1 — doing so with starters Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic still unable to play because of injury.
“I tell Coach all the time, ‘’I’m ready for this,'” Butler said. “The biggest stage, whatever you ask me to do, I can do.”
His coach, Erik Spoelstra, has clearly listened.
“This is what he wanted, this is what we wanted,” Spoelstra said. “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.”
It was the third 40-point triple-double in finals history. Butler was 14 for 20 from the field and, after the Heat surrendered a double-digit lead early in the fourth, he made sure this one wouldn’t get away.
“He’s one of the best competitors we have in our game,” the Lakers’ LeBron James said. “Love that opportunity. For me, personally, I don’t know how many more opportunities I’m going to have so to be able to go against a fierce competitor like that is something I’ll look back on when I’m done playing. I’ll miss those moments.”
James had 25 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists for the Lakers, while Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris each had 19 points off the bench. Anthony Davis managed 15 for the Lakers.
Game 4 is Tuesday night. Tyler Herro and Kelly Olynyk each had 17 points for Miami, which got 13 from Duncan Robinson and 12 from Jae Crowder.
“We had players step up this whole playoffs, and it’s no different now for us,” Crowder said.
Whenever the Heat looked ready to pull away and grab control of Game 3, the Lakers always found a way to find their best gear.
A 13-point Heat lead in the early going? The Lakers had the lead back in less than five minutes.
A 14-point Heat lead after a 10-0 run to start the second half? The Lakers scored the next eight.
A 12-point Heat lead late in the third? It took the Lakers less than five minutes to put together a 20-6 run, taking the lead back at 91-89 with 8:55 left on a layup by Rajon Rondo.
“We were almost fighting back the entire game,” Morris said.
The last punch went to Miami, Butler simply unwilling to let his team go down 3-0. The only other time Miami was down 2-0 in a finals was 2006, when Dwyane Wade took over and led the Heat all the way back to the franchise’s first title.
This time, it was Butler — another Marquette guy, like Wade — in that role, at least for Sunday night.
“We know how Jimmy is in these moments, and the world has seen what Jimmy Butler is capable of,” Herro said.
Miami’s starters outscored the Lakers’ starting five 89-51, and the Heat held the Lakers to a 14-for-42 night from 3-point land.
James, who won two titles with the Heat, wasn’t in the least bit surprised that Miami showed up to fight.
“I know how resilient that bunch is and how resilient that coaching staff is and their franchise,” James said. “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.”
It didn’t take Butler and the Heat long to forget Sunday and start looking to Game 4 as well.
It’s going to be a tough game, Game 4,” Herro said. “But we’ll be ready.”
Lakers: Rondo hit a wild layup midway through the third, cutting from the right wing across the lane, flicking the ball up with his left hand and watching it kiss off the gray bar atop the backboard before bouncing through. … The Lakers had 10 turnovers in the first quarter, matching the NBA high for any team in any first quarter this season.
Heat: Butler had 19 points, six assists, six rebounds and two steals by halftime. The only other player to do all that in a first half this season was Karl-Anthony Towns for Minnesota against Charlotte on Oct. 25. … Nick Aquilino, the son of Heat neuromuscular therapist Vinny Aquilino, performed the anthem — a recording from a Heat game with fans in Miami.
James had eight assists Sunday and now has 843, which is 222 more than anyone else this season; Denver’s Nikola Jokic is second with 621. That will be the biggest margin between first and second in the NBA since 2004-05, when Steve Nash (1,031) had 363 more than Stephon Marbury (668).
Butler became the 21st player to have a triple-double in the NBA Finals — and four of the 21 were part of Sunday’s game. James has a finals-best 10 triple-doubles, Rondo has one and so does Lakers assistant coach Jason Kidd.