All you needed to see was Jimmy Butler, exhausted by this climb, bent over behind the baseline, sucking in deep breaths because oxygen is hard to find this high up the mountain.
There were 46.7 seconds left in Game 5 on Friday night, the Miami Heat were down by a point and the season was in the hands again of the player three NBA teams gave up on.
Butler stepped to the foul line and made the two foul shots. The Heat were on top again. But nothing was finished then, not yet, not in Game 5, certainly not the way LeBron James was charging for another championship.
Here’s what happened in the Heat’s 111-108 win: Butler at his best beat LeBron James at his best.
Did anyone see that coming when the Heat signed him a year ago? Anyone call that coming into this series?
Here was LeBron, a few minutes from his fourth title, picking up his team in the way only the greatest players can in sports — and here was Butler blocking his way. Literally. Physically. Admirably.
Their mano-a-mano duel started with 3:42 left when Butler blocked LeBron’s shot right under the basket. LeBron turned to the ref, demanding a foul, but all he could do was complain about some calls after the game.
Don’t misread that. LeBron was great this night. Forty points. Thirteen rebounds. Seven assists. That’s a winning stat line for his team on most any night.
And down the stretch? LeBron made a classic drive and got fouled, and his two free throws brought the Lakers into a tie at 101-101.
And Butler answered with a 20-foot jump shot.
LeBron then made a driving layup, was fouled and sank that free throw for a 104-103 lead.
And Butler answered with a driving layup of his own to put the Heat up again.
Do you see what was happening? Sense the great theater of this finish? The championship hats were printed. The trophy was waiting. The best player in the game was playing his best game.
And Jimmy Butler outplayed Lebron in a game of heavyweight H-O-R-S-E. Back and forth they went, LeBron and Butler, Butler and LeBron, until the stage was theirs almost alone.
LeBron made a nice move, made a nice shot and with 58.2 seconds left, the Lakers had a 106-105 lead.
That’s when Butler, after breathing deep to collect himself, made two free throws to put the Heat back on top.
"That’s Jimmy Butler,'' teammate Bam Adebayo said by way of explaining the night.
That wasn’t the Jimmy Butler for the first nine years of his career. It wasn’t the guy Chicago, Minnesota and Philadelphia gave up on. It wasn’t the player who feuded with teammates and had a less-than-certain reputation.
Now, here this Jimmy Butler saying after Game 5, "Whatever you’re going to throw at me isn’t going to work.''
It didn’t, either. After the Lakers' Anthony Davis got a fortunate basket at the shot-clock buzzer to regain the lead, it was Butler again driving. And again getting fouled. And again, with 16.8 seconds left, making both foul shots. Those were the winning points.
Butler made all 12 of his foul shots Friday. He had 35 points to go with 12 rebounds and 11 assists. But what he did most of all was never blink when LeBron was coming.
Did LeBron blink? No, not really. That’s what made this finish so great. The Heat took the Lakers’ best and won. With the game on the line, LeBron was double-teamed and passed to a wide-open Danny Green at the 3-point line.
You know how they call the NBA a make-or-miss league? This was the definition. Green missed. The Heat won.
"I trusted him,'' LeBron said. “We trusted him, and it just didn’t go. You live with that. You live with that. It’s one of the best shots that we could have got.”
No, it wasn’t just Butler. Duncan Robinson had the game of his life, 26 points, and every one was needed. Kendrick Nunn provided 11 important points in the first half.
Down the stretch, though, it was Butler doing what no one really expected when the Heat signed him a calendar year ago. He outplayed LeBron in a Finals game. He got the Heat to Game 6 where — who knows?
Davis was limping badly at the end Friday. LeBron played as great as he can. And it was Butler who won the night.
"Nothing,'' Butler said when asked what he had left. “I left it out here on the floor along with my guys. And that’s how we’re going to have to play from here on out.”
He then said, “We have to play better.”
Serious question: Can he?
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