NBA Finals: Put off the champagne celebration for now

Destiny has been riding the coattails of the Los Angeles Lakers all season long. But for the Miami Heat, they believe in that same destiny: winning an NBA championship. Both teams are playing in the 2020 NBA Finals because they’re the best team in their respective conferences.

The 111-108 Game 5 win by the Heat illustrates this point. For all the return to glory talk about the Lakers, the Heat has done something no other team has done in the postseason, and that is to win multiple games against the Western Conference champs. Portland couldn’t do it. Houston wasn’t able to find a way to do it. Denver tried but failed at it as well.

That small victory alone gives the Heat a fighting chance in this series.

“Well, we have a goal: We’re fighting for a title,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “That’s what it’s going to require and our guys have an understanding. Through the first two games of this series we realized, all right, this is a different level. We’re going to have to get to a higher level. Our guys are extremely competitive, so this level of play that the Lakers have brought is bringing out something different. But again we can’t sit up here and pat our back too long. We got to gear up and get ready for the next one. Just inches us closer to the goal, that’s it.”

LeBron James did just about everything he could do and more under the sun for his team to be able to hoist the franchise’s 17th NBA title, rolling to 40 points, 13 rebounds, and dishing off seven assists. This was supposed to be a closeout game for the Lakers, being up 3-1 in the series. They wore their Black Mamba uniforms in which they had been undefeated in. On this night, however, destiny would not come the Lakers way.

“It’s basketball. It’s the Finals,” Lakers forward Anthony Davis said. “They wanted to win as bad as we wanted to win. So we’ve just got to go take it on Sunday. We had times to kind of break open the lead and we had too many breakdowns defensively, giving shooters wide-open shots, not talking. They are going to make us pay every time. We have to be better on the defensive end.”

Jimmy Butler with his monster triple-double evening, along with his Heat squad put that celebration on ice for a couple of days.

“I left it all out there on the floor along with my guys, and that’s how we’re going to have to play from here on out,” said Butler. “Like I always say, it’s win or win for us. But this is the position that we’re in. We like it this way. We got two more in a row to get.”

In the two victories that the Heat has been able to muster up against the Lakers, Butler has produced two all-time games. With Miami down 2-0 in the series, Butler came up with a 40-point, 11-rebound, and 13-assist effort in the Heat’s 115-104 win in Game 3. His 35-point, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists performance in Game 5 solidified his status as one of the top players in the NBA.

During his postgame press conference, Butler said the onus is on him to have those type of statement games.

“Because that’s what my team asks of me, that’s what they need me to do, and I think Coach Pat and Coach Spo brought me here for that reason; to help us win games and I have to continue to do that for two more games,” Butler said. “I know that I’m capable of it, but I got a hell of a group of guys around me that make my job a lot easier. I’m fortunate for those guys because when I pass it to them they make shots. When I get beat going to the rim, they’re there. So we’re in this thing together and they give me a lot of confidence to go out there and hoop.”

At the end of the day, when it matters, superstars are the ones who decide the fate of a team if they win or lose a title. James and Butler played Game 5 the way you would want them to play to determine whether the confetti would rain down on the Black Lives Matter-painted court or if the Heat would have enough in their tanks to stave off elimination.

The Heat was able to do that by Spoelstra shortening his rotation to seven players, six of whom scored in double-figures. Miami outshot the Lakers from 3-point range, hitting 42 percent of their long-distance attempts to LA’s 38 percent. With all of that said, the game still came down to one critical possession.

Down 109-108 with 7.1 seconds left in the game, Danny Green misfired on an open 3-point shot. The Lakers were able to get the rebound but Markieff Morris ended the dramatics with an erroneous pass that he threw out of bounds, effectively putting an end to a possible walk-off win for Los Angeles.

“Listen, at the end of the day, you don’t predetermine anything and you take the game as it’s going and you play,” James said. “You play each quarter, you play each possession and you live with the results. You don’t think about what could happen at the end of the game and things of that nature. You don’t get caught up in the aftermath. You have to live in the moment and prepare yourself each and every possession because if you start to wander and your mind starts to go, you make a mistake. One thing about this team that we are playing, they make you pay for every mistake. It’s the same as when I was playing against Golden State all those years, you make a mistake, they make you pay. So we have to understand that.”

For true hoop fans, the outcome was irrelevant. Basketball was the winner. Sure, Butler and the Heat busted James and the Lakers’ bubble when they pulled off the unthinkable in Game 5, but the enjoyment of watching the Heat star going heads up against one of the game’s all-time great unflinchingly made for good theater for everyone.

“Obviously it was back and forth, big play after big play,” James said. “A couple, you know, questionable calls that swayed their way and put Jimmy to the free-throw line. Obviously, we can’t do that. He’s been damn near perfect at the free-throw line in the series. We just needed to get one stop. We felt like if we could get one stop, we could do something on the offensive end. But we got a hell of a look. We got a hell of a look to win the game, to win the series. Didn’t go down.”

If any team is capable of throwing a wrench into another team’s plans to win the NBA title, the Heat has been pretty good at it during their playoff run. Butler and Miami raised more than a couple of eyebrows when they took out MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the playoffs. They followed that effort by bouncing the Boston Celtics out of postseason play.

Now with two wins notched on their NBA Finals belt, Butler likes the Heat’s punch-counterpunch mentality against the star-studded Lakers.

“We ain’t backing down,” Butler said. “We ain’t shying away. We can go on the other end and do what we do. I think he [LeBron James] had a hell of a performance tonight, along with AD [Anthony Davis], the whole team. But we’re still fighting. We’re in it to win it, we’re not backing down, we’re not scared of nobody.”

Editor’s note: Feature image appears courtesy of Miami Heat via FB

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