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March 15, 2019

Brett Brown: Sixers need Jimmy Butler's best to achieve our goals

Jimmy Butler was not exactly forthcoming about what sparked his tremendous performance against the Kings on Friday night. Asked about what sparked his evening after sauntering into the media room, Butler decided it was time to lay it on thick.

"Seventy-five degrees outside today," Butler said. "I just felt good for real, that weather, 75 degrees. My body felt good, we [were] rollin'. I think everybody was comfortable, and we realize how important each and every one of these games is down the stretch. So it's time to take it up a notch or two."

The joking parts of Butler's press availability aside — the man flexed at the cameras after noting he was up at 5 a.m. and did pilates on his "rest day" Tuesday — it was clear from the get-go that we were getting a different Butler against Sacramento. Not the one who overpasses, not the one who allows himself to become a passenger within the offense, but the dynamic player they sought out last November.

No one took notice of this more than Brett Brown, who was fired up about Butler's effort after the game.

"I thought it was one of his best games," Brown said. "We will not — and I'll say not even close — we will not be as good as we can be without him playing like he plays and like he played tonight. I'm the coach, I need to figure out the best way to do this. Some of it's with substitutions and rotations, some of it's his teammates recognizing [it], some of it's on him. 

"Somewhere in the middle if we can all meet, he's just incredibly gifted, he really is so athletic that he can make plays through that sort of physical presence and skill package. We need him. We need him. That's the bottom line."

There will be minimal disagreement with that sentiment around Philadelphia. Butler was at his absolute best on Friday night — 22 points, six rebounds, seven assists, on an efficient 8/14 from the field that all added up to a team-best +20. The Sixers killed the Kings whenever Butler was on the court, and that showed up in the eye test and the numbers.

Philadelphia needed Butler big time, with Tobias Harris and JJ Redick both struggling in the early portion of the game. That he was able to deliver without breaking out of Philadelphia's general offensive structure was even more encouraging, as it showed the marriage of talent and buy-in that the Sixers were hoping for when they went out and acquired him in the first place.

A tweak to Philadelphia's rotation on Friday night changed Philadelphia's pairings that they usually go to with their stars. Brett Brown tends to stagger his guys so that Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons play the early bench minutes, while Joel Embiid and Butler take the end of 1st/3rd and beginning of 2nd/4th minutes. Simmons and Harris have flashed some great early chemistry in Philly, so there is a part of you that says, "Why make the switch?"

"Just trying to look at things so that by say, Game 12, you're able to feel comfortable about a look, and by Game 10 you're able to really scrutinize it and walk something down for the final 10 games," Brown said. "It's driven by a lot of different factors, some gut feel, some do we feature, as an example, Jimmy more in that pairing, and let him do some more things with the ball?"

If we're judging exclusively based on the numbers, this is an avenue the Sixers need to keep exploring:

Lineup  PTS/100 POSS  PTS allowed/100
 Harris + Butler (108 possessions)120.4 97.1 
 All four stars (179 possessions)119.092.2 

All of these numbers are noisy. There is no controlling for strength of schedule and the sample is limited for every combination the Sixers are throwing out there right now. The Sixers have only just settled on James Ennis as the rotation wing, which has helped tie a lot of things together. Even with those caveats, there's something worth exploring here.

The lineups almost don't matter when Butler plays like this. When he's driving into the teeth of the defense and seeking out contact, when he's engaged away from the ball on defense, Butler remains one of the game's most impactful players. This is a much different guy than we've seen in recent weeks, independent of whether the shot went in or not:

"I thought every time he felt like he had a [favorable] matchup he just went at that person's neck basically, and he made plays," JJ Redick said after the game. "It wasn't just scoring the ball, it was driving, creating havoc. Just a level of aggression, and he's shown that at times for us. You'd love to see that every night for sure."

The Sixers have games coming up that they'll need this version of Butler for, Sunday's date with Milwaukee being a prime example. Butler's tenure in Philly to date has been all over the place, from All-NBA level performances to games where you hardly even realize he is there.

But at the end of the day, the ability to put his stamp on a game is still there. It doesn't matter what it takes — a rest day, warm weather, or a swift kick in the ass from a member of the team. As long as this Butler shows up in the playoffs, the Sixers will be tough to beat.

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