Shepard: Jimmy Butler made history against LeBron in Game 3

Jimmy Butler NBA Finals
Photo credit USA Today Images
By CBS Sports Radio

Before we dive into what Jimmy Butler did that was unprecedented, let’s finally admit who he is: a true warrior. He is the ultimate overachiever and a winner when it comes to the game of basketball. Often maligned for not getting along with teammates and/or management, it seems these days that Butler is looking pretty good and very comfortable. He was the 30th overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft. He didn’t exactly come in with the highest of expectations, yet he made his first All-Star team at just 25 years old. He would be selected four more times. That’s extremely impressive from a No. 30 overall pick. Picks two through eight in that 2011 NBA Draft have made ZERO All-Star Appearances COMBINED. With the Chicago Bulls, Butler averaged less than 3.0 PPG his rookie season; by his fourth year, he was an All-Star. Many close to the situation in Chicago say Butler’s ego got the best of him and the strong relationships he once had with the Bulls were deteriorating. He was ultimately traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves. In Butler’s last season with the Bulls, they made the playoffs. In the three years since he left, their best win percentage for any season is less than 34%, so clearly not a playoff team. Since Butler’s departure, the dip in that Bulls franchise has been notable. When Butler arrived in Minnesota, they had not made the playoffs since the (first) Kevin Garnett era in 2004. In Butler’s first year, he led them to their first playoff berth in 14 years. Butler clearly took over as the leader of the team. Not all of his teammates, especially the younger ones, matched Butler’s commitment to the game and the desire to compete. They didn’t have his level of professionalism, so Butler essentially forced himself out. The Timberwolves didn't make the playoffs after he left in 2019 or the next season. They lost more than 70% of their games, a far cry from making the playoffs Meanwhile, Butler found himself with the Philadelphia 76ers, where he led them to the Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. They would lose to the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors, who needed a buzzer-beater in Game 7 to survive. This season without Butler, they not only didn’t make it out of the first round, but they got swept. Thus, the 76ers’ deepest postseason run since that magical ride to the NBA Finals in 2001 came in the one season Butler was in Philly. When the 2019-20 season was over, Butler made it clear that the 76ers, especially Brett Brown, may not be the best fit, so he went to the Miami Heat, a culture built by the “Godfather,” Pat Riley. The Heat’s core tenets embody winning with tremendous heart, work ethic and relentlessness. These are qualities Butler has deeply sought out and developed as an NBA player. You had a feeling this was going to work out. Butler would find a coach in Erik Spoelstra and a team executive in Riley who would match his intensity, worth ethic, competitiveness and will to win. Sunday was the biggest game of Butler’s career, and that competitive spirt shined in a way that is so rarely seen from others against LeBron. The Lakers were up 2-0 in the NBA Finals over the Heat. It’s a virtual certainty that if the Heat lose Game 3, the season is over. This was an absolute must-win, and Butler played arguably the greatest game against LeBron James that we have ever seen from a player on the biggest stage. Courtesy of the Elias Sports Bureau, Butler became the first player in an NBA Finals game against LeBron to outscore him, out-rebound him and out-assist him and his teammates. Only an alpha shows up at their best when the lights are brightest, and the competition is at its highest. It doesn’t get too much higher going against the best player of his generation in LeBron James for the NBA title. To outplay LeBron in an NBA Finals like no one else has before is highly impressive when you consider the fact that LeBron has played 52 Finals games, far from a small sample size. LeBron in the NBA Finals has faced Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook and James Harden to name a few. Five of the six players mentioned are MVPs. The other in Kawhi Leonard is a two-time Finals MVP. Yet, it is Butler who hasn’t so much as made an All-NBA first or second team that made LeBron unequivocally take a back seat unlike any other time we have seen before. Butler wasn’t just great against LeBron on the biggest NBA stage. He was all-time great!

·       The third 40-point triple-double in NBA Finals History. LeBron and Jerry West are the others·       Game-high 40 points on 70% shooting to go with 13 Assists and 11 rebounds (both game-highs)·       The only other player in NBA history to have a game like that is Wilt Chamberlain who was 7'1 and did it in the regular season·       Had as many points as both LeBron and Anthony Davis combined·       As many blocks as the entire Lakers team combined·       Butler scored or assisted on 73 points. According to the Elias Sports Bureau that is tied for the second most in an NBA Finals Game.·       Butler is the first player in more than 18 years to have 40 points in an NBA Finals game without taking a three. The last player to accomplish this was Shaq.  A lot has been said about Butler over the past few years. When you have success with three teams and then you leave those respective teams and they significantly regress, you truly realize the impact of that player. Butler in Game 3 was possessed to be the best player on that court. He knew Sunday was the most important game of his career to this point. He was fearless and didn’t flinch or tighten up for a second. As a result, he did something to the greatest player of our generation that no one else has been able to do: MAKE HISTORY against LeBron James and outplay him in every way. Mission accomplished!

CBS Sports Radio producer David Shepard is a former ESPN researcher, a former Division I college basketball practice player, and the host of The Good Shepard YouTube channel. Follow him on Twitter @TheGoodShepard_.