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Jimmy Butler and LeBron James locked into great NBA Finals duel

Heat star Jimmy Butler and Lakers star LeBron James

ORLANDO, FL - OCTOBER 9: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers handles the ball while Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat plays defense during Game Five of the NBA Finals on October 9, 2020 at The AdventHealth Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

NBAE via Getty Images

Jimmy Butler had a magnificent, once-in-a-lifetime, LeBron James-toppling performance in Game 3 of the NBA Finals.

Five days later, Butler did it again.

Butler has been amazing in this series. LeBron has been, well, himself.

Combined, that creates one heck of an individual matchup.

The per-game numbers are staggering:

  • Butler: 29.0 points, 8.6 rebounds, 10.2 assists, 2.6 steals
  • LeBron: 30.2 points, 11.4 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 1.2 steals

Using game score to aggregate box-score statistics, Butler is having the best NBA Finals on record. Butler’s game score (30.7) tops everyone since 1984, as far back as Basketball-Reference has data.

LeBron’s game score (27.1) ranks 11th. For perspective, that’s third among his 10 NBA Finals, trailing only 2017 (29.6) and 2018 (28.3).

The harmonic mean of Butler’s and LeBron’s game scores is 28.8 – second-highest between opposing players in all playoff series of this era. Only Kevin Durant (30.3) and LeBron (29.6) in the 2017 NBA Finals had a higher harmonic mean game score (29.9).

*Harmonic mean, as opposed to traditional average, credits even matchups. Series where one player dominates and another player lags far behind don’t rank as highly.

Here are the playoff matchups with the highest harmonic mean game scores between opposing players since 1984:

pbt jimmy butler lebron james 2020 nba finals

After the 2017 Finals, Durant said he thought LeBron was passing the torch to him. LeBron wasn’t. He’s still in his prime. Though Durant outplayed LeBron in 2017, Durant (whether or not he admits it) faced less on-court burden while playing with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala.

Butler has no such luxury.

Goran Dragic has missed nearly the entire Finals and is unlikely to return. Bam Adebayo has also missed significant time.

Butler is just putting the Heat on his back to keep this series tight.

“Love it. Love it,” LeBron said of facing Butler. “One of the best competitors we have in our game. We love that opportunity. For me personally, I don’t know how many more opportunities I’m going to have. So to be able to go against a fierce competitor like that is something I’ll look back on when I’m done playing. I’ll miss those moments.”

It’s easier for LeBron to relish the matchup with the Lakers leading the series. Up 3-2, they can close out in Game 6 tonight.

That contest could also put a dent in Butler’s and LeBron’s series numbers. Butler’s performance seems ripe for regression – especially after his massive workload (43 minutes per game, offensive focal point, defending LeBron).

So, no, LeBron and Los Angeles aren’t in trouble yet.

But Butler is having a special series – on LeBron’s level – to at least threaten trouble.