For 45 minutes, Butler slashed to the basket and jockeyed with Lakers defenders for offensive rebounds on his way to finishing with 40 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists. His stat line put him in esteemed company: Butler was just the third player in Finals history to have a 40-point triple-double, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information, joining Jerry West and LeBron James.
Butler also became the first player to score 40 points without attempting a 3-pointer since Shaquille O’Neal in 2002.
“How else do you say it other than Jimmy F’ing Butler?” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game. “This is what he wanted; this is what we wanted. It’s really hard to analyze or describe Jimmy, until you actually feel him between the four lines. He is a supreme, elite competitor.”
Butler enjoyed arguably the best game of his NBA career — impacting play on both ends of the floor — while continually hitting shots down the stretch when the Heat needed them most. But even as the Heat found a way to beat James and a Lakers team that has dominated throughout the past two months, Butler brushed off his individual performance.
“We won,” Butler said. “I could care less about a triple-double.”
He continued: “I hope the next game I score zero, and y’all talk like y’all wanna talk, and we win, so I can come up here and say the same thing.”
After the Heat rushed out to a double-digit lead early in the first quarter, the Lakers answered with a run of their own. It was then, Butler said, that James squawked at him: “You’re in trouble.”
With just over a minute left in the contest, as Butler banked in a shot off the glass to give the Heat a commanding nine-point lead, Butler said he parroted back James’ taunt.
“It’s competition at its finest,” Butler said. “I think LeBron got the best of me way too many times. I respect the guy for it, but this is a different time now, a different group of guys that I have around me.”
After the game, James said that he thought Butler was “phenomenal” in Game 3.
Butler’s performance certainly didn’t surprise a Heat team that has fallen in love with his work ethic and approach all season. The Heat have come to expect him to dominate on the biggest stage.
“He’s always been the type of guy you can depend on,” said Heat forward Jae Crowder, who also was Butler’s college teammate at Marquette. “Whatever you need — not just scoring. He can get a big rebound or big foul or big charge. Whatever you need him to do, he’ll come through.”
In between the praise for Butler, players and Spoelstra carefully reminded themselves — and anyone listening — that they were toeing a delicate line of celebrating a historic performance and knowing that they’re still trailing in the series.
The win does give the Heat some extra time to potentially get Goran Dragic, who missed the past two games with a torn plantar fascia in his left foot, and Bam Adebayo — who missed the same two games with a strained neck — back on the floor.
“I go to war for those guys because whenever they’re out there, they’re going to war with and for me,” Butler said.
Before Sunday’s game, Adebayo was on the floor getting up some shots and working out with the Heat’s assistant coaches. Still, Spoelstra said there is no official timetable for his return. With or without those two starters, though, Butler said the Heat will find a way to make the series interesting in Tuesday’s Game 4.
“We’re going to win,” Butler said. “We’re going to compete. We’re not gonna lay down; we’re gonna fight back in this thing and even it up 2-2.”
ESPN’s Nick Friedell contributed to this report.