LeBron James has gone head-to-head with about 10 different future Hall of Famers in his four NBA Finals wins against the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors and Miami Heat. However, Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, or even Stephen Curry didn’t put up the fight that his most recent Finals foe did. After landing on his third different team in three seasons, Jimmy Butler can now hang his hat on being the toughest opponent that James had to overcome on his way to a Larry O’Brien Trophy.
The fifth-seeded Miami Heat pushed the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers to six games before James and Anthony Davis finally sent the NBA community home from their “bubble” after a hundred-plus days of being locked away. While James and the Lakers dominated games one, two and six, Butler’s performance in games three, four and five was a sight for sore eyes and deserves to be recognized.
In the series Butler averaged a cool 26.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, 9.8 assists, 2.2 steals and 0.8 blocks all while playing an average of 43 minutes per game. The Marquette product put the franchise on his back as Bam Adebayo only played meaningful minutes in the final three games of the series and Goran Dragic returned for game six; both missed multiple games to injury. Butler led the team in each of these categories and it wasn’t particularly close.
His 43 minutes per game edged rookie Tyler Herro by about nine minutes. Butler beat out Adebayo in points and rebounds by about 11 and two respectively, while tying the big man with 0.8 blocks per game. Herro’s three assists per game couldn’t sniff the 9.8 that Butler recorded per night. If Dragic is taken out of the equation due to his lack of playing time in the series, Butler beat out Duncan Robinson by an average of 1.4 steals per night.
These numbers beat out what Durant and Russell Westbrook did in the 2012 Finals. A year later Duncan, Leonard, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili put together more of a team effort when they fell short to the King. In the infamous 2016 3-1 comeback Curry and Klay Thompson were far from the individual performance of Butler in 2020.
The 2020 Heat may not have been James’ toughest opponent that he’s had to overcome as the 2015-16 Warriors own the record for most regular season wins; however, it’s tough to argue that Butler wasn’t the greatest individual performer that James went through.
What separates him from the pack isn’t the numbers – although impressive – it was his willingness to not be pushed over by the Lake show without much help. When Durant made it to the Finals, he had Westbrook and James Harden by his side. When Leonard was ascending into a star, he had one of the greatest “big threes” of all time alongside. Curry was on the greatest regular season team of all time. Butler was on a fifth-seeded team with a rookie as his running mate for much of the series.
When it came to crunch time everybody in the world knew the ball was going to end up in Butler’s hands and there was nowhere for him to hide. He didn’t have a future Hall of Famer to pass the ball off to for the final shot. Without many expectations, Butler and the Heat stole two games from the best current duo in basketball and nearly forced a game seven. It’s not outlandish to think that if Butler had forced a seventh and final game, he would’ve received votes for the Bill Russell Finals MVP no matter the outcome.
PHOTO COURTESY OF WALLY SKALIJ