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Jimmy Butler and the greatest NBA Finals games ever played

Ben Rohrbach
·9-min read

We need to take a moment to appreciate Jimmy Butler’s 40-point triple-double, because it is inarguably one of the greatest single-game performances in NBA Finals history. It was a legacy-altering night that forces us to rethink his career trajectory, since only pantheon-level players have done what he just did on this stage.

Analytics guru John Hollinger’s Game Score statistic quantifies an individual’s impact, boiling down a box score into a simplified version of his all-encompassing Player Efficiency Rating, only for a single game. It applies to every game since the league began tracking steals and blocks in 1978. Butler’s Game Score of 42.0 is now second in Finals history, behind only LeBron James’ 42.5 in Game 6 of an epic 2016 comeback.

Tim Duncan is the only other player to post a Game Score better than 40 in a Finals game. Lower the Game Score bar to 38, and the list expands to Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Kevin Durant. What company.

Butler’s 40 points in Game 3 on Sunday night came on 14-for-20 shooting from the field and 12 of 14 free throws. He did not attempt a 3-pointer. Shaquille O’Neal and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the only others to do that in the Finals. Butler’s 13 assists and 11 rebounds made him the third player to log a 40-point triple-double at this level, along with James and Jerry West. Butler posted two steals and two blocks, too. However you break down the numbers, for one night he was on par with the best players ever on the game’s grandest stage.

And none of that accounts for Butler’s defensive work opposite James, arguably the second-best player in the history of the game, who committed eight turnovers in what was for him a lackluster performance.

At age 31, Butler is the oldest player to post a 40-point game in his Finals debut. This was not Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reaffirming their greatness in a fourth or fifth Finals appearance. Nor was it Magic Johnson announcing his greatness as a 20-year-old rookie in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals. This was Butler willing himself to greatness when nobody else considered him for the list.

No one can take this away from Butler now. We have seen him do it opposite James, a pantheon player, and Anthony Davis, who is on his way at age 27. Whether he can do it again, Butler belongs. He arrived here his way, a former junior college prospect who was drafted last in the first round and averaged 2.6 points as a 22-year-old rookie, before steadily building himself into a perennial All-Star. Eleven years into his career, he is the best player on a Finals team, capable of outplaying two all-time greats at once.

Jimmy Butler may not be an all-time great, but his Game 3 belongs in the pantheon. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Jimmy Butler may not be an all-time great, but his Game 3 belongs in the pantheon. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

There is no precedent for what Butler just accomplished. There were those who did not even consider him a top-10 player in the league at his best, but he has established a new peak, one measured against legends.

The list of players to score 40 points in a Finals victory is short: West (six times), Jordan (four times), O’Neal (four times), Elgin Baylor (three times), James (three times), Kyrie Irving (twice), George Mikan (twice), Dwyane Wade (twice), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Rick Barry, Kobe Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain, Durant, John Havlicek, Allen Iverson, Johnson and Bob Pettit. Every one of them who is eligible is in the Hall of Fame.

We looked back over the past 40 years to see what people were saying about them after those games ...

Magic Johnson, age 20

1980 NBA Finals, Game 6: 42 PTS (14-23 FG, 0-1 3P, 14-14 FT), 15 REB, 7 AST (5 TO), 3 STL, 1 BLK

“I knew he was good but I never realized he was great.

— Doug Collins, Philadelphia 76ers

Michael Jordan, age 29

1992 NBA Finals, Game 5: 46 PTS (14-23 FG, 2-4 3P, 16-19 FT), 5 REB, 4 AST (4 TO), 1 BLK

Michael is a special kind of player.

— Buck Williams, Portland Trail Blazers

Shaquille O’Neal, age 28

2000 NBA Finals, Game 1: 43 PTS (21-31 FG, 1-6 FT), 19 REB, 4 AST (2 TO), 3 BLK

Allen Iverson, age 25

2001 NBA Finals, Game 1: 48 PTS (18-41 FG, 3-8 3P, 9-9 FT), 6 AST (3 TO), 5 REB, 5 STL

I’ve never seen anything like it.

— Derek Fisher, Los Angeles Lakers

Dwyane Wade, age 24

2006 NBA Finals, Game 3: 42 PTS (14-26 FG, 1-2 3P, 13-18 FT), 13 REB, 2 AST (1 TO), 2 STL

“He’s just fabulous. He’s a great one.

— Shaquille O’Neal, Miami Heat

Kobe Bryant, age 30

2009 NBA Finals, Game 1: 40 PTS (16-34 FG, 0-1 3P, 8-8 FT), 8 REB, 8 AST (1 TO), 2 STL, 2 BLK

He’s one of the best players of all time. There isn’t anything he can’t do.”

— Lamar Odom, Los Angeles Lakers

Kyrie Irving, age 24

2016 NBA Finals, Game 5: 41 PTS (17-24 FG, 2-2 FT, 5-7 3P), 6 AST (4 TO), 3 REB, 2 STL, 1 BLK

LeBron James, age 31

2016 NBA Finals, Game 6: 41 PTS (16-27, 3-6 3P, 6-8 FT), 11 AST (1 TO), 8 REB, 4 STL, 3 BLK

“It’s LeBron being LeBron. He’s one of the greatest of all-time.

Tyronn Lue, Cleveland Cavaliers coach

Kevin Durant, age 29

2018 NBA Finals, Game 3: 43 PTS (15-23, 6-9 3P, 7-7 FT), 13 REB, 7 AST (3 TO), 1 STL, 1 BLK

He’s one of the best players that I’ve ever played against that this league has ever seen.”

— LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

It was understood they were watching an all-time great in real time. There is no comparison here for Butler.

It feels a little like Iverson’s 48 points in Game 1 of the 2000 Finals against O’Neal and Bryant, a pair of all-timers, but he was the league’s MVP that season and a two-time scoring champion by age 25. Butler’s best MVP finish is 10th, when he received a single third-place vote in 2018, and he has ranked no higher than 14th in scoring for any season. Iverson was already a cultural phenomenon, stamped for Springfield, not someone on his fourth team in four seasons, working on his last chance to be considered for superstardom.

Irving submitted back-to-back 40-point games alongside James against the 73-win Golden State Warriors in the 2016 Finals. He was also a No. 1 overall pick coming into his own, someone we imagined scoring at that level for some time, and he remains three years younger than Butler. Irving was destined for greatness, even if career obstacles have prevented him from sustaining it. Butler was a known quantity. Or we thought.

There were no players or coaches putting Butler’s performance into historical terms, not the way they saw Wade ascending before their eyes or how it was just an expected outcome from Bryant, James and Durant. Lakers coach Frank Vogel was not even asked about Butler in his postgame press conference. James called Butler’s effort “phenomenal” from “one of the best competitors we have in our game,” but it was all framed in the context of what problems the Lakers have left to correct — not that Butler was the problem.

If you bet on Butler to lead Game 3 in scoring and register his first career playoff triple-double, you would be rich today, because nobody saw this coming, with the possible exception of his Miami Heat teammates.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Heat guard Tyler Herro said after Sunday’s 115-104 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. “We know how Jimmy is in these moments, and the world has seen what Jimmy Butler is capable of.”

Except, we did not know how Jimmy was in these moments, because we have never seen him here before, but the world has seen what Jimmy Butler is capable of now, and we wait to see if he can do it again. Nobody considered Butler an all-time great entering Game 3, and I am not sure anyone is convinced now, but this is the sort of game you remember when a guy’s name comes up for the Hall of Fame. Jimmy Butler was the best player on the court while defending LeBron James in a must-win Finals game. He belonged.

And it took Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to put Butler’s performance into perfect perspective:

“How else do you say it, other than Jimmy f---ing Butler. 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’s a supreme, elite competitor, and we needed it.

“Obviously, this was a very desperate, urgent game, and he was doing it on both ends of the court. He just put his imprint on every important part of the game. He’s in the top percentile of this entire association in terms of conditioning, and you saw he just got stronger as the game went on.

“But it’s also just one. So we also have perspective, like we’re not going to get carried away with this.”

Jimmy f---ing Butler, the man who willed himself to all-time greatness for at least one night.

– – – – – – –

Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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