The Miami Heat surprised the Los Angeles Lakers and halted their dreams of an NBA Finals sweep on Sunday, with Jimmy Butler posting a 40-point triple-double. The Heat’s unexpected victory meant that they can tie the series with a Game 4 win on Tuesday (9 p.m. ET, ABC and the ESPN App).
We asked our experts for their takeaways from Game 3, their choices for Finals MVP so far and what they expect in Game 4.
Here’s what they had to say along with their new series predictions:
1. Your takeaway from the Heat’s performance in Game 3?
Brian Windhorst: Miami has a game plan it believes in and knows can work. The path is narrow — and plenty of things have to go right — but it’s there. The Heat moved away from the zone and played more conventionally, which is to say they sagged defenders in the paint and dared the Lakers’ shooters. This enabled Miami to play much more physical defense. Plus they have Butler.
Nick Friedell: The mental toughness of this group is pretty special. Butler always says he and the Heat don’t pay attention to the outside noise, but these guys are human. They knew pretty much the whole world thought the series was over, and they still found a way to win. Butler has taken his game to a higher level than it’s ever been, but it’s been impressive to see how much his game gives confidence to all the younger players around him.
Tim Bontemps: Butler is every bit the superstar he’s always believed himself to be. As Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game: “How else do you say it other than Jimmy F’ing Butler?” For Miami to win without Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic, it was going to take a magnificent performance from Butler. No matter what else happens this series, Butler will always have this moment. And he’ll deserve every ounce of respect that comes with it.
Jorge Sedano: It starts and ends with Butler. He was incredible. Butler is the third player in NBA Finals history with a 40-point triple-double, after Jerry West and LeBron James. According to research by ESPN Stats & Information, Butler scored or assisted on 73 points, tied for the second most in an NBA Finals game, trailing only Walt Frazier.
Kevin Pelton: Kudos to Spoelstra for finding a workable game plan without two of his best three players. Replacing Adebayo with bigs who can shoot the 3 (Meyers Leonard and Kelly Olynyk) has caused the Lakers’ defense problems by pulling Anthony Davis away from the basket, and this time Miami got enough stops to make it matter.
2. Your takeaway from the Lakers’ performance in Game 3?
Windhorst: The Lakers have a big margin for error right now and they know it. That is a blessing and a curse. It’s not that anyone questions James’ focus, but he was tweeting about the Dallas Cowboys–Cleveland Browns game a few hours before a Finals game. This is a guy who used to retire his phone during the playoffs. Let’s just say he was loose, and so were the Lakers in the way they approached this game. They are the more talented team, and they should win, but they have to actually jump through the hoops and go around the corners. That’s what this told them.
Bontemps: They couldn’t have been much worse and still almost won. The Lakers committed 19 turnovers, Davis was virtually invisible and Butler was amazing, and yet the Lakers still led in the fourth quarter. Of course, that’s without Adebayo and Dragic. If one or both can return, Los Angeles’ margin shrinks.
Sedano: The Heat were the aggressors as the Lakers relaxed. Miami’s activity on defense forced 10 Lakers turnovers in the first quarter, and James had eight turnovers for the night. The other problem was Davis’ foul trouble, which hurt his and the Lakers’ flow offensively. Some of his fouls were uncharacteristic for him. He needs to be more disciplined.
Friedell: How in the world are the Lakers — with their size and with Adebayo out — not absolutely hammering the Heat down low? Davis is too great a player to go missing for stretches, even if he is slowed by foul trouble. That’s particularly harmful when the shooting is a problem, with Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope a combined 1-for-11 from the field on Sunday.
Pelton: Lakers coach Frank Vogel needs to consider (another) starting lineup change. After Dwight Howard was a difference-maker in the conference finals, the Lakers have been outscored by 12 points in his 47 minutes in the Finals — including minus-15 on Sunday. The Lakers can’t afford another slow start with two traditional bigs on the court.
3. Your top three candidates for Finals MVP?
Windhorst: 1. James. His team is ahead, and if you’ve watched any part of these playoffs or this series you know why. 2. Butler. He has just had one of the best Finals games of the past decade, and there are a ton of James, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard games on that list. If the Heat win, he’ll have had more. 3. Davis. He was masterful in Games 1 and 2. He was a big reason the Lakers lost in Game 3, so he slips to here. But plenty of time to make up for it.
Bontemps: The leading candidates are now James (if the Lakers win) and Butler (if the Heat win) — that puts James first and Butler second. While there was talk of Davis outstripping James for the award through two games, Davis is now a distant third after his disappearing act in Game 3.
Sedano: 1. James has been the best player on the floor through three games, even with loose protection of the ball in Game 3. He makes everyone around him better and gets his teammates great looks on offense. 2. Davis is shooting 64% in this series and looked like the front-runner after the first two games, but he had a subpar Game 3 marred by foul trouble. 3. Butler was very good in the first two games and spectacular in Game 3.
Friedell: 1. James has been as steady as usual, even if the Heat are making him work for everything. 2. Davis has been awesome overall, despite his Game 3 clunker. 3. For the Heat to win this series, Butler has to continue to carry them.
Pelton: I think Butler has been the most valuable player so far, but given that a player on a losing team has won MVP only once (Jerry West in 1969), I think he is less likely than both James and Davis. Between them, I think Davis’ poor Game 3 makes him less likely to win than James, even if Davis is the better player going forward.
4. What do you expect to see in Game 4?
Windhorst: Davis will have an attack mindset. The Heat knocked him out of rhythm with the defensive changes, and the foul trouble seemed to take him out of things mentally early on Sunday. Davis has so many advantages in this matchup, especially if Adebayo remains out or limited, that the Lakers big man being an also-ran in any game is just not acceptable.
Bontemps: The Heat are going to play hard. If Adebayo and/or Dragic can play, Miami will feel confident it can get back into this series. That said, I expect James to come out and regain control to move the Lakers within one victory of their first championship in a decade and his fourth title. If he does, he’ll be on his way to becoming the first player to win Finals MVP with three teams.
Sedano: Spoelstra has a saying: “Burn the boats.” In other words, there’s no looking back. We saw that in Game 3 for Miami. James is quite familiar with that saying, and if his disgust as he left the floor in Game 3 is any precursor, we are in for a great battle by both teams in Game 4.
Friedell: The scrappiest game we’ve seen. The Heat never lost belief, but now they have momentum. If they can get Adebayo and Dragic back, it will be a lot of fun to watch Miami’s offense and defense run the way they did all season. The Lakers know they can’t allow that to happen, so I’m sure they’ll go to James early and often — and they’ve got to get Davis to assert himself again.
Pelton: I expect to see Davis come out motivated to have a better game and the Lakers putting him in better position to succeed offensively, which might mean playing more facing the basket rather than allowing the Heat to double-team him in the post.
5. Does the series so far change your prediction?
Friedell: Before the series started, I thought Miami would find a way. I thought the Heat were the basketball Cinderella that was meant to be — but without them at full strength, the Lakers dominated Games 1 and 2. If Adebayo and Dragic can somehow return soon enough, I’ll still take the Heat in seven. If not, I’ll take the Lakers in five.
Windhorst: I don’t make predictions. I do think beating James and Davis four times in five games, which is what the Heat are trying to do, will be very difficult. I’m quite happy to watch them try, though.
Bontemps: Given the Heat’s injuries, the Lakers winning the next two games is by far the most likely scenario. But by losing on Sunday, L.A. opened the door for Miami and gave Adebayo and Dragic more time to return. Still, Lakers in five has to be the pick as of now.
Sedano: The injuries play a huge role in any revision to my original pick of Lakers in seven. I think it’s possible Miami could still get one more game — but even that’s a daunting task.
Pelton: Yes. I wish I knew more about how much we’ll see Adebayo and Dragic the rest of the way, but for now, I’ll go with Lakers in six instead of my original pick (Lakers in seven).