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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

Jimmy Butler backs up guarantee as Heat gain confidence in Game 3 win of NBA Finals

Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat dribbles against

Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat dribbles against LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half in Game 3 of the NBA Finals at AdventHealth Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Credit: Getty Images/Douglas P. DeFelice

The numbers for Jimmy Butler Sunday night in Game 3 were legendary, his 40-point triple-double something only two other players in NBA Finals history had accomplished, and it’s easy to point to that as the sole reason that he isn’t currently packing up his assortment of jerseys and his coffee maker, readying for a return home in a few days.

For Butler, the points and rebounds and assists may have won the day this time, but there were moments maybe more important than any highlight play.

Before the game began he stood on national television and hopped around like a toddler waiting his turn on the swings, enthusiastically insisting that the Heat were winning that night. It may not have been Broadway Joe Namath in a Miami Beach lounge chair, but there he was guaranteeing that his undermanned squad was going to be giant-killers Sunday night.

And then when the game began and his teammates, particularly 20-year-old rookie Tyler Herro, did not seem quite up to the moment, instead of taking over, he told him to keep shooting. And after an early lead disappeared by the time the first quarter ended, Butler and LeBron James exchanged words. James said ominously, "You’re in trouble."

But by the end of the game Butler had lifted not only the team with his performance, but raised the confidence of the inexperienced teammates around him. And he had a message for James, in the fourth quarter after another one of his buckets, he shouted, "You’re in trouble."

"First of all, I'm not just out there talking trash because I'm not," Butler said after getting 40 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists in Miami's 115-104 win. "LeBron said that to me at the end of the first, that's what happened. I just said it to him in the fourth quarter.

"I think LeBron has got the best of me way too many times. I respect the guy for it, but this is a different time now, a different group of guys that I have around me, and we are here to win, we are here to compete. But we're not going to lay down, we're going to fight back in this thing, even it up 2-2."

In his stream of words you might miss that he has already made his prediction for Tuesday night, picking the Heat to even this series against the Lakers at 2-2. And he may be right. Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic could possibly be back for that game, helping even the odds a bit.

But what Butler is doing, always seems to be doing, is leading his team. And maybe not just for Game 4, but for some future game — next season, next year’s Finals, maybe beyond. He urged Herro on when the rookie seemed to be channeling John Starks' 1994 Game 7 performance and by the end of the game Herro was snarling like Butler with 17 points, helping put the game out of reach.

And unsolicited Butler was already pushing his next target, prodding Duncan Robinson to follow his — and Herro’s — suit.

"We're just going to go out there and compete, do what we know that we're capable of," Butler said. "I will say, Duncan needs to shoot the ball a lot more. He needs to hunt shots because he's going to be a reason that we win one of these games. He's going to hit six, seven 3s and I'm going to jump up and down and I'm going to give him a big hug, maybe a slight kiss on the back of his head, because I know how important that that guy is to our team."

The Heat doesn’t have James anymore like they did when they last were competing for championships, but they do have Butler. And there is a connection between those points — Dwyane Wade, James’ running mate in Miami, told the Heat that Butler would bring them back.

"Dwyane swore to us," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. "He looked that night dead in the eye and said, ‘This is your guy. This is the next guy.’ "

Next is now for Miami. That may not get any better than it was Sunday for them.

New York Sports