Before Friday night, James' greatest man-on-man heavyweight-style match was with Paul Pierce, still the most tenured of all James' rivals, in Game 7 of the 2008 conference semifinals. James scored 45 of the Cleveland Cavaliers' 92 points that Sunday afternoon in Boston. Pierce had 41, the two players guarding each other, getting to their sweet spots and one-upping big plays all while holding, pushing and cursing. The Celtics won by five.
But that one probably goes down a peg after this James-Butler show. These two were brilliant in going chest-to-chest all night, culminating in a climax in the final three minutes in which they traded off scoring on six consecutive possessions. Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson were on the James vs. Pierce broadcast 12 years ago, and they were there again Friday to call a beautiful game.
Butler finished with 35 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists, 5 steals and a block in playing all but 48 seconds of the game. It was an incredibly efficient performance, featuring 11-for-19 shooting, even though he repeatedly had to deal with a big, elite defender in Anthony Davis.
James simply had one of the greatest shooting games of his already exhaustively impressive Finals career. He made 15 of his 21 shots and six of his nine 3s, dream numbers for a player who values efficiency. He closed with 40 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 steals.
"That's the beauty of the game, being able to compete at the highest level," James said. "You take those opportunities and you live in the moment. You're trying to make plays for your team and be successful on both ends."
In the end, they were indeed guarding each other. James was on Butler when Heat teammate Jae Crowder set a perfect back screen that freed Butler to get to the basket and draw a foul on Davis. The following free throws were the difference in the game.
Butler checked James on the final play, but James faced a double- and then a triple-team as he got into the paint, leading him to a kickout that resulted in a missed 3-pointer that might haunt Danny Green for a while.
That was it -- that's how small the gap was. In between there were so many displays of force offset with nuanced reads and finesse that led to a powerful, sublime back and forth.
In that fourth quarter, James had 12 points, 7 rebounds and 2 assists as he had to carry the Lakers with Davis hobbling on a sore foot. Butler had 8 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists, continuing to play mostly point guard with Heat star Goran Dragic out with his own foot injury.
"That's what really, really, really great players do," Butler said of the battle. "But we ain't backing down. We ain't shying away. We can go on the other end and do what we do. I think [James] had a hell of a performance tonight."
James now has 10 playoff losses in his career when he has scored 40 points, second to only Michael Jordan's 12.
Butler has scored or assisted on 240 points in the past four games. That's the most in a Finals span other than James, who had 245 in the 2017 Finals. Jordan had 239 in a four-game stretch in 1993.
These guys are touching history, and when it comes to James that's a ridiculously high standard. But that's how great Butler has been. And that's how special what's unfolding between these two is becoming.
"We were both just trying to do that and trying to will our team to a victory," James said. "You know, he was able to make one more play than I was able to make tonight and come away with a victory."