The Miami Heat, fueled by a 40-point triple-double from Jimmy Butler, clawed their way back into the NBA Finals with a 115-104 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday.
The under-manned, under-sized, underdog Heat turned the tables on the Western Conference champions in the NBA’s quarantine bubble in Orlando, cutting the deficit in the best-of-seven championship series to two games to one.
“I think we realized that we belong,” Butler said. “They can be beat, as long as we do what we’re supposed to do.”
Butler scored 40 points, pulled down 11 rebounds and handed out 13 assists to power a Heat team missing injured Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic for the second straight game.
The injuries to Adebayo and Dragic were a huge blow to the Eastern Conference fifth-seeded Heat’s hopes of pulling off a title upset, but Miami, with Butler leading the way, declined to back down.
Superstar LeBron James led the Lakers with 25 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.
But it was a tough night for Anthony Davis, who was in foul trouble early and finished with 15 points and just five rebounds in the defeat.
An 8-0 scoring run capped by Rajon Rondo’s driving layup saw the Lakers take a 91-89 lead with 8:56 left in the game.
The Heat responded with an 8-0 run of their own launched by Butler’s fadeaway jumper under pressure in the paint.
After James was whistled for traveling, Butler cut through the Lakers defense and fired a pass to Kelly Olynyk on the perimeter for a three-pointer and the Heat were on their way.
“They continued to make shots,” James said. “We had some turnovers, we didn’t make shots. They came out and executed after we took the lead.
“Jimmy had his hand in all those plays, pretty much,” added James, who said Butler was “phenomenal.”
“He did everything that they needed him to do tonight and he came through big-time in a big-time game,” James said.
Butler added two blocks and two steals as he did a stellar job defending James, but said individual numbers are meaningless at this stage.
“Win,” he said of his total focus in game three, a mission no doubt sharpened by the knowledge that no NBA team has rallied from an 0-3 deficit to win a best-of-seven playoff series.
“I don’t care about the triple-double, I don’t care about none of that, I really don’t. I want to win. We did that, I’m happy with the outcome.”
Rookie sensation Tyler Herro and reserve Kendrick Nunn added 17 points apiece for the Heat. Duncan Robinson scored 13 and Jae Crowder chipped in 12 for Miami.
With their backs against the wall and plenty of pundits predicting a Lakers sweep, the Heat surged out of the gate and led by as many as 13 in an impressive first quarter.
In the face of stifling defense, Davis had four turnovers and didn’t get a shot off in the first period while collecting two personal fouls.
James also turned the ball over four times as 10 Lakers turnovers led to 11 Heat points.
“You just can’t turn the ball over against this team,” said James, who finished with eight of the Lakers’ 20 turnovers on the night. “And I take full responsibility for that.”
Despite their sloppiness, the Lakers trailed by just three after the first quarter.
Markieff Morris drained a three-pointer to knot the score less than a minute into the second period. Davis’s first points of the night, a three-pointer off an assist from Rondo put the Lakers up 32-30, and Rondo found Davis for an alley-oop dunk that made it 34-33.
It looked like the Lakers were poised to mount the kind of comeback they put together in game one, when they surged back from a 13-point first quarter deficit to win by 18.
But the Heat kept the pressure on. Butler scored 11 points in the second quarter, Davis picked up his third personal foul and the Heat took a 58-54 lead into halftime.
Miami opened the third quarter on a 10-0 scoring run, and less than two minutes into the third Davis was whistled for his fourth foul.
“The foul trouble made him a little passive,” James said of Davis. “He wanted to be on the floor but he couldn’t be his aggressive self offensively and defensively.
“So I think the fouls slowed him down a lot tonight.”
Game four is on Tuesday, and Sunday’s victory ensures a game five on Friday and increases the chances that either Adebayo, nursing a neck and shoulder injury, or Dragic, who has a torn left plantar fascia, could return before the series ends.
“We’re not concerned,” James said. “We know we can play a lot better. We have another opportunity to take a commanding lead on Tuesday.”