Tyler Herro sneered. Sneered? Yeah, sneered. Or snarled. Or something.
“He did that thing with his lip,” Miami Heat teammate Jimmy Butler said Sunday night.
Herro is 20, looks 16 and “that thing with his lip” couldn’t intimidate a 5-year-old. It didn’t matter. It was the thought, coming off a game-clinching layup (and one) that counted.
Just moments earlier, Butler had just scored two of his 40 points on the night and told LeBron James, “You’re in trouble” — which was a repeat of what James had told Butler in the first half, back when Los Angeles thought it might sweep this thing.
The Lakers didn’t. The Lakers won’t. Heat 115-104.
In case you haven’t noticed — and to paraphrase the great Harry Doyle, judging by the television ratings, you haven’t — the NBA Finals are going on. They didn’t really start, however, until Sunday night’s Game 3, when Butler decided to channel the Heat’s culture of Alonzo Mourning/Dwyane Wade toughness, give the Lakers some good trouble and whittle their series lead to 2-1.
“Jimmy Effing Butler,” coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Here at the end of the strangest NBA season ever, inside a pandemic-proof bubble that encompasses a Central Florida youth sports facility, we might actually have something to get interested in.
Trying to play the Finals during the NFL season has proven as challenging as one would expect. Worse, Miami lost Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic to injury in Game 1. Neither has returned. Yet.
That meant Miami was offensively challenged, had no defensive answer for Anthony Davis (66 points in the first two games) and was staring down a determined LeBron.
This wasn’t worth paying much attention. Now it might be, though.
Miami president Pat Riley once popularized the saying that a series doesn’t really begin until a team loses on its home court. This year, every game is played on the same (neutral) court. Yet the core of that theory might still apply. To win on the road in the playoffs, you need to be mentally, physically and emotionally tough.
Miami finally acted that way on Sunday. Butler scored his 40 on just 20 shots and 14 free throws, repeatedly putting the ball on the floor, driving to the hoop and often winding up in a heap after getting hacked. This was an exercise of pride as much as performance.
“He’s a supreme, elite competitor,” said Spoelstra, who saw Butler during his previous stops in Chicago, Minnesota and Philadelphia as a player with a unique mindset who desperately needed a franchise that cherished it and would respect it.
“This is why we pursued Jimmy so aggressively,” Spoelstra said of signing him as a free agent before this season. “We just felt, all across the board, there was an alignment that we’re sharing the same competitive values. … We’re aligned on that and you’re able to build a culture from that and develop a team around him.”
When Tyler Herro is sneering, your toughness is rubbing off on everyone.
This was Miami to the fullest. And it was a level of fight that Los Angeles couldn’t match. The Lakers, for the first time in franchise history, attempted more 3-pointers than twos, a sign of a club settling for long jumpers. Meanwhile, the Heat’s Kelly Olynyk (17 points, seven rebounds) outplayed Davis (15 points, five rebounds).
As for LeBron, he couldn’t match Butler’s brilliance (plus he had eight turnovers), was clearly frustrated late and eventually left the court when there were still a few seconds left to play (not the biggest deal, but a sign of his mindset at that moment). He admitted after that Butler got the best of him.
“Love it, love it,” LeBron said of Butler coming right at him. “One of the best competitors we have in our game. We 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.”
Now it is on LeBron and Co. to make the most of this moment. Look, this was one game. The Lakers have the better talent (certainly as long as Adebayo and Dragic are in street clothes). AD isn’t going to be bad every night. They still have LeBron.
Miami has some hope though. Miami has some fire. And the longer this goes, the better the chances Bam, at the very least, returns. That could change a lot of things.
Mostly, though, we have a series, we have a Finals. Game 4 is Tuesday night, and if Jimmy Butler is going to bring it like this, then the Lakers’ flaws become very apparent.
It might be time to start paying attention. It took awhile, but this is getting interesting, one unlikely sneer at a time.
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