In the 24 hours leading up to Friday night’s Game 5 of the NBA Finals much was made -- too much maybe -- of the Lakers' decision to wear their black mamba jerseys for what could be a championship celebration. Reporters inquired about the uniform and it’s meaning and the Lakers played in, sounding as if this was Superman’s cape they were donning to signify their invincibility.
It’s hard to blame them for honoring Kobe Bryant, one of the franchise’s brightest lights who died last January in the helicopter crash that stunned the NBA before COVID-19 paused the season. But what Bryant had, what Bryant was, came not from some snakeskin cloth, but from the heart.
And for the Lakers and the celebration that they seemed to believe was just another scheduled event, the confetti cans rolled out courtside in the final minute of the game, there was one problem.
While the Lakers have the best player in the game in LeBron James, arguably the greatest player in NBA history, and also maybe a player who could be argued is the greatest talent in Anthony Davis, they don’t have Bryant. And if there is one player in the series who actually has that "Mamba Mentality," it isn’t James or Davis or any of the other Lakers. It is Butler.
Butler certainly isn’t the player that Bryant was. Bryant was a phenom from childhood, ordained for greatness from his high school days, skipping straight to the NBA and then spending two decades as the closest thing to Michael Jordan the league had seen. It was the same path James had, earning a cover of Sports Illustrated as an Akron high schooler heralding him as "The Chosen One."
Butler’s path was nothing like that. Lightly recruited out of high school, he opted for junior college before landing at Marquette and finding his place in the league as the last pick of the first round in the 2011 NBA Draft. The Heat are his fourth team, reading more like a journeyman’s course than a path to greatness. On his stops though, he has managed five All-Star Game appearances and four All-Defensive Team honors.
But greatness has been there in this series. There was his 40-point triple-double in Game 3. With his team facing elimination Friday, Butler responded with a 35-point, 12-rebound, 11-assist and 5-steal performance, joining Gary Payton as the only player with at least 35, 10, 10 and 5 in a playoff game.
As impressive as those numbers are, though, they don’t tell the story. Maybe start with 47 minutes played, nearly every one of them not only putting his body in front of James and Davis on the defensive end and carrying his undermanned team on his shoulders. With Goran Dragic sidelined and Bam Adebayo missing two of the games and returning as a shadow of the player he was before suffering a neck injury, not to mention a young and untested group around them, Butler has had no choice but to carry the load.
Down the stretch Friday he raised echos of Bryant as he leaned over, exhausted, but still made every free throw, created every play, to hold off the confetti. While James was griping about every call -- and still doing it afterward -- Butler never whined or cried, instead smiling slyly as if he knew something no one else did.
"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," Butler said. "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.
"Because that's what my team asks of me, that's what they need me to do, and I think Coach Pat [Riley] and Coach Spo [Erik Spoelstra] brought me here for that reason; to help us win games and I have to continue to do that for two more games. 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."
Butler has talked this talk throughout the series, on the court and in interviews, lifting his teammates like 20-year-old Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson, who early in the series looked overwhelmed by the stage (and the focus of the Lakers on not giving him the open shots he thrives on). He talked up Robinson until Robinson finally believed him.
But even as Robinson made shots Friday, it was Butler’s game to win or lose. Advertising rarely depicts reality, but Butler is part of a beer campaign that talks about it not being worth it unless you enjoy it and even in exhaustion, he does.
"Jimmy, again, his will to win is remarkable," Spoelstra said. "To do that in 47-plus minutes and take the challenge on the other end, this is -- every young player coming into this league should study footage on Jimmy Butler, the definition of a two-way player competing on both ends, five steals, and then making those big plays down the stretch for us offensively.
"He’s the ultimate competitor and when you're facing the ultimate competition, that's what happens. You hope that it brings out a higher level than you can go just by playing normal competition. You have to be a real competitor for that to happen, and hopefully, that's happening with our entire team right now because we're being pushed and challenged by a very good team. Our guys are embracing that."
Butler is, and even if he was doing it in some other uniform than the mamba snakeskin, Bryant would, too.