By the end of the NBA Finals, there was no doubt in the world about whether the Lakers or the Miami Heat were the better team. LeBron James made sure of that.
But while James has gotten a ton of credit for his dominant night offensively to finish off the Heat, what he did defensively in guarding Jimmy Butler may have been just as important.
Lakers assistant Mike Penberthy told Ryan Ward of Lakers Daily that James demanding the assignment was a key to the Lakers closing out their 17th title:
Game 6. We sat down. We had a game plan set in place. We sat down to do our usual. We turned on the video. We walked through Miami.
LeBron says, “Coach, I want to guard Jimmy [Butler]. I want to match his minutes. I feel like I need to match up with him the whole game. I don’t want anybody else to guard him. I want to guard Jimmy Butler.”
That’s leadership in a nutshell right there. You just basically said, “I’m going to be the best player in the game and I’m gonna guard the other team’s best player and that’s what we’re going to do.”
So, that tells you a little bit about him. He was going in that morning to say, “I got Jimmy Butler and I’m going to play 48 minutes if I have to.”
We didn’t have to play 48 (laughs). The game was over in 24, but that tells you a lot right there.
James was a big part of making sure the Heat didn’t show any signs of life. Anthony Davis had done an exemplary job on Butler earlier in the series, but his injury in Game 5 limited his effectiveness in that role. James ensured that didn’t matter.
In the Miami Heat’s two wins in the Finals, Butler averaged 37.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 12 assists while shooting 64.1% from the field, helping the Heat outscore the Lakers by 12.5 points during his minutes. But in the time James was on the floor with him during Game 6, Butler scored 12 points on 55.6% shooting to go with 6 rebounds and 6 assists, while the Heat were outscored by 19 points, according to NBA.com.
The Heat outscored the Lakers by one point during the minutes James did not share the floor with Butler.
Now, that is not to say that James guarded Butler on every single one of those possessions. The Lakers’ defense was absolutely a stellar and tireless team effort. Still, him demanding the challenge of being the primary defender on Butler, at age 35, is still notable, especially when considering that the much younger man who won MVP over him declined to do the same thing in his own playoff matchup with the Heat.
That differing mentality may not be the sole reason the Lakers are champions and the Milwaukee Bucks are not, but it certainly can’t have hurt, and it’s representative of the team-wide mindset of everyone doing whatever helps the Lakers most win all year, and getting to give input as the team searches for the right strategy. It’s somehow fitting that doing so is what would effectively have decided the championship.
Nothing but respect for our MVP.
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