Watching the final minutes of the Miami Heat's epic 111-108 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night, which trimmed the Lakers' lead in the NBA Finals to 3-2 heading into Game 6 on Sunday, I found myself thinking about the climactic fight in Rocky IV.
It's the middle of the last round. Rocky and Ivan Drago can barely stand they're so exhausted, but they're still throwing, and landing, one blow after another. And in the middle of this blood-spattering brawl, the announcer, the real-life Barry Thompkins, looks up from his ringside seat at these two warriors and says: "Forget technique. Forget strategy. This is just a street fight. It's a question of who wants it most."
You can talk about pick and rolls and switches and every X and O you can think of, but in the end, these dudes, these absolute warriors, are just straight-up brawling. The roles fit, too. LeBron is Drago, a physical specimen unlike anything the game has ever seen. Butler is Balboa, ever the underdog who will fight like his life is on the line every time he steps on the floor.
When they say styles make fights, they are alluding to the contrast of opposing approaches. But LeBron and Butler actually play a pretty similar game. Neither is a great shooter, but they're capable. They play physical, downhill basketball, no frills necessary. They initiate offense with supreme patience, sometimes out of the post, sometimes off the dribble -- pass-first guys who have an uncanny feel for when to get others involved and when to force their way to the basket. Jimmy, in a lot of ways, is simply a smaller version of James.
And the smaller man is not giving an inch in this series. On Friday, Butler went for 35 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists and five steals. He sat out one minute. LeBron, in what has to be one of the greatest Finals performances in defeat, went for 40 points (6-for-9 from 3-point land), 13 rebounds, seven assists and three steals. Those seven assists could've easily been higher as Lakers shooters, per ESPN Stats and Info, were 0-for-6 via LeBron passes in the clutch.
This idea of LeBron passing in the clutch will, once again, raise the tired debate about whether the best player on the floor should always take the potential game-winning shot, something LeBron has refused to do in his career when someone else has a better look. He did it again on Friday, finding a wide-open Danny Green for a top-of-the-key 3-pointer with the Lakers down one and seven seconds to play. It was the right play. It's not even a debate. LeBron was triple-teamed on the baseline. Green just alligator-armed it.
Besides that, the Lakers didn't lose because LeBron didn't take the final shot or because Green missed. They lost because of Butler, who scored eight of Miami's final 10 points -- a deep jumper, a sweet seven-foot turnaround off a jump stop and pivot, and four straight free throws off aggressive drives to the rim.
At the start of each of those four possessions, Miami was either tied or losing, thanks to LeBron answering Butler with seven points of his own with under three minutes to play. In other words, Jimmy put the Heat ahead with each of his conversions, with the four foul shots all coming with under a minute to play. This is what he looked like before the first of those two white-knuckle trips to the line:
HIs legs probably Jello, the season on the line, Butler drilled those free throws right in the heart. No doubters. It's in keeping with Butler's exemplary performances in the clutch during these playoffs -- which the NBA defines as five-point games with under five minutes to play. In those situations, here's what Butler is doing:
This is what it takes to lead a No. 5 seed to the NBA Finals, let alone stand toe to toe with arguably the greatest to ever do it once you get there. Butler now has two 30-point triple-doubles in these Finals. The only other player to do that? LeBron James in 2015. Together, here's what Butler and LeBron are doing on the biggest stage:
In the 2020 NBA Finals...— Rohan Nadkarni (@RohanNadkarni) October 10, 2020
If you're a basketball fan, you don't want this to end. Thankfully, we get at least one more game. If the Lakers are going to end this thing on Sunday, they need more help from the non-stars. LeBron and Anthony Davis accounted for 87 of the Lakers' 108 points on Friday, including assists. That's over 80 percent of the offensive production stemming from two guys. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was the only other Laker to score in double figures.
The Heat, meanwhile, got 26 from Duncan Robinson, who made a bevy of monster 3-pointers. Kendrick Nunn was huge off the bench with 14 points of his own. All told, Miami had six players score in double figures, and Bam Adebayo had a down offensive game, so there's room to improve. Miami is in this thing. Davis aggravated his heel contusion and looked like he was having trouble moving normally down the stretch on Friday. If he's hobbled at all, advantage Miami, which needs just one more win to force Game 7, where we know that anything can happen.
LeBron knows this, too. He came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the 73-win Warriors in 2016. He knows what fighters look like. And Jimmy Butler is some kind of fighter. By now there are no surprises. Miami's zone has been bagged. Rotations are what they are. These teams know each other inside and out at this point, and everyone is exhausted. As Barry Thompkins said, this is a street fight now. It's just a question of who wants it most.