Jimmy Butler Is Philadelphia 76ers' Trump Card in NBA Title Chase

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 30, 2019

TORONTO, CANADA - APRIL 29: Jimmy Butler #23 of the Philadelphia 76ers handles the ball against the Toronto Raptors during Game Two of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs on April 29, 2019 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 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 2019 NBAE (Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)
Ron Turenne/Getty Images

And that is why the Philadelphia 76ers traded for Jimmy Butler.

It wasn't just because they could, or because the Markelle Fultz experiment went belly up before it ever started, or because Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons aren't enough on their own. It was all those things and more, and then even more than that.

After dealing for Butler in November, acquiring Tobias Harris in February and once again leaning on late-season additions to flesh out a rotation begging for substance beyond the starting five, the Sixers are as close as it gets to an NBA contender assembled on the fly. 

They are shallow yet teeming with star power, terrifyingly talented yet unavoidably unfamiliar. That top-heavy slapdashery doesn't always work, but it can work. It has worked—often just barely, though it's worked all the same.

Butler is the primary reason why. He gives the Sixers a line to potential dominance. He also affords them a margin for error. They can fall behind big, blow leads, lose the bench battle, endure struggles from their other stars and slog through Embiid's bout with diarrheaSome of their worst cases can still include the best outcomes.

That identity served them well in their 94-89 Game 2 victory over the Toronto Raptors, during which Butler went for 30 points, 11 rebounds and five assists.

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The Sixers opened up a nine-point lead in the first quarter and took a 13-point advantage into halftime, skillfully distancing themselves from a Game 1 letdown despite committing nine second-quarter turnovers. They refined the nuts and bolts of their half-court offense:

Their defense reinvented itself by tinkering with the individual matchups. Head coach Brett Brown moved Simmons onto Kawhi Leonard and moved their bigs off the low-usage Marc Gasol:

Those good vibes didn't last.

Toronto pushed the pace on both makes and misses in the second half and stretched Philly's defensive adjustments by featuring Gasol early in the third quarter. The Sixers didn't get nearly as much pressure on Leonard and missed all 11 of their three-point attempts. 

Parts of the fourth quarter weren't any different. JJ Redick missed all three of his triples, and Philly finished the final frame 2-of-9 from downtown. Embiid committed two lost-ball turnovers and didn't shoot until almost the three-minute mark of the quarter, at which point he had already logged more than six minutes. 

He also came up with perhaps the best assist of his career:

And he mustered the juice necessary to put Gasol through a spin cycle:

For the most part, the Sixers got by on their defense. They held the Raptors to two points in the first four minutes of the fourth quarter and just seven points until the six-minute mark.

Butler carried them the rest of the way. He dropped 12 points and three assists while taking over point guard duties down the stretch and attacking the Raptors defense before it could get set:

That energy set the tone for the Sixers all game, even as they weathered Toronto's second-half runs. Butler drilled three of his four treys in the first half and fought for rebounds wire to wire. His efforts drew grown-up praise from Brown:

(Worth noting: James Butler does not actually play for Philly.)

Skeptics will see this game as an anomaly for the Sixers. They didn't prove their mettle. They narrowly escaped.

The Raptors almost erased a 19-point deficit and are going to play better. Their starters outscored Philly by 13 points in Game 2, and head coach Nick Nurse has some obvious counters:

Remove Leonard and Pascal Siakam from the final tally, and everyone else on the Raptors is shooting 28.9 percent for the series. That won't hold. James Ennis III and Greg Monroe combined for 23 points, and the Sixers won the second-unit battle, 26-5. That won't hold, either.

But so much of the same can be said for Philly. Harris will shoot better (3-of-11). Ditto for Embiid (2-of-7), and he'll be less sickly. (Healthier is a different story. His left knee remains an issue.)

Simmons will put up more than six shots and do a better job getting to his spots. Even if he doesn't, and even if he cedes more ball-handling responsibilities to Butler, there's value in knowing he can log 44-plus minutes while chasing around one of the NBA's five best players. Leonard scrapped together 35 points, but he looked more human doing so, and Simmons coaxed him into abandoning some extra possessions.

Monday's win can have only so many overarching implications. The Sixers didn't discover a recipe for this series, or for emerging from the Eastern Conference, so much as survive long enough to steal home-court advantage.

Chris Szagola/Associated Press

Still, these smaller, singular victories add up. And they can find comfort in knowing Butler's crunch-time heroism isn't new. That element of his game has persisted even as he and the Sixers grappled with the awkward combination of shallowness and relative newness.

In the 29 clutch appearances he made with Philly during the regular season, Butler averaged 28.7 points and 4.4 assists per 36 minutes while nailing 35.3 percent of his three-point attempts. Only Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Victor Oladipo matched those benchmarks over the same span.

Having that crunch-time crutch—that player who can take over by blending together the best of Embiid, Harris and Simmons—is huge. The Sixers are built in the hopes they can win convincingly. It won't always be that easy, or that pretty.

And it doesn't need to be.

The Sixers have Butler to help them navigate the ugly. 

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.


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