With less than three minutes left, Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Friday night turned into a mano-a-mano duel between the great LeBron James and his super-tough challenger Jimmy Butler. They scored 15 of the last 19 points of the game, and Butler outscored James, 8-7, before Tyler Herro hit two free throws with 1.6 seconds remaining in the Heat’s 111-108 victory.
It was a thrilling conclusion to a tense game that cut the Lakers’ lead to 3-2 and extended the series to Game 6 on Sunday at Walt Disney World in Orlando. Butler made four foul shots after questionable calls in the final minute to cap off his triple-double with 35 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists. James was just as good with 40 points, 13 rebounds and 7 assists.
"That’s the beauty of the game, being able to compete at the highest level," James said when it was done. "You take those opportunities, and you live in the moment. We were both trying to do that and trying to will our team to a victory. He was able to make one more play than I was able to make tonight and come away with a victory."
James questioned the foul calls in the final minute against Butler, especially an attempted block by Anthony Davis against Butler at the rim. "I thought AD made a heck of a play at the rim," James said. "I felt he was chest to chest with Jimmy, making him change the trajectory of his shot, and the call didn’t go our way. We still had an opportunity to win."
Indeed, the Lakers trailed 109-108 when James found himself facing a double-team and wisely passed to Danny Green for a wide-open three-pointer. But Green, a great long-range marksmen, has struggled in this series. His shot missed its mark with 7.1 seconds left. The Heat rebounded, and that’s when Herro was fouled before converting the final two points of the game.
"If you just look at the play, I was able to draw two defenders below the free-throw line and find one of our shooters at the top of the key for a wide-open three to win the championship," James said. "I trusted him. We trusted him, and it just didn’t go. You live with that. It’s one of the best shots we could have got in that fourth quarter, especially with two guys on me. Danny had a hell of a look. It just didn’t go down…You just live with it."
James got tremendous support from co-star Anthony Davis, who totaled 28 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocked shots. All while playing with a heel injury that limits his mobility.
"We just needed one stop," Davis said when asked to describe the final minute. "Two calls that could have went either way with Jimmy – the foul on Markieff [Morris] and then the vertical play on me. Then, we got a look at the end. It was a back-and-forth game. If we get one stop, they have to foul. If we make the free throws, we go home. But we’ve got to go get it Sunday."
James and Davis and their Lakers teammates obviously expected to win this series, especially after pulling out a tight Game 4 win that put them up 3-1. James was on the only team that came back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals in 2016 with Cleveland, so, the Lakers understand that a collapse is possible.
"We still have to realize we are up in the series, but we definitely use this as fuel," Davis said of the Game 5 loss. "If we don’t make our mistakes, we win the game…We win one; they have to win two. We have to keep that in mind. It’s a tough one because we know we had this one in the bag."
No doubt, the Lakers had Game 5 in the bag, and they blew it. Now what?