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November 17, 2018

Instant observations: Jimmy Butler's game-winner helps Sixers survive 60 points from Kemba Walker

Sixers NBA
111718_Butler-win_usat Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia 76ers guard Jimmy Butler heads to the locker room as fans high five after an overtime win against the Charlotte Hornets.

It was more dramatic than it should have been, it was a roller coaster of emotions, it was a typical Sixers game from the last few seasons. But this time, they had the guy to put them over the top, and a Jimmy Butler game-winner canceled out 60 points from Hornets guard Kemba Walker, and the Sixers eeked one out in overtime, 122-119.

Here are some scattered thoughts from the game, as my brain is currently sliding out of my ears at the thought of the Sixers having a guy who can get them over the line in closing moments.

The Good

• Joel Embiid has been absolutely brutalizing teams early in games over the last week, and the trend continued against the Hornets on Saturday. The big fella hit five of his first six shots from the field in the first six minutes of action, good for 11 points halfway through the first quarter of play.

I'm sure he was probably mad when he was pulled by Brett Brown after the ensuing timeout, but the run did not stop when he had to take a breather in the middle of a quarter. He scored seven more in the final few minutes of the opening period, bringing his total up to a whopping 18. The most surprising part? He only took three free throws in the opening frame, and that usually represents a huge chunk of his production.

As good as Embiid has been on a nightly basis, these flashes make you believe there's more untapped potential within him. The post moves come in fits and starts, the jumper can be erratic, and he doesn't always get to the spots on the low block he needs to. But when you see him put it all together, even for a quarter, you can only think of how dominant he would be if he could string these sequences together more often.

And make no mistake — he's dominant already. Can you imagine Embiid taking another big leap?

• Ben Simmons was filling up the box score early in this game, as he has done on many occasions through his first two seasons. But the thing I was most impressed with between he and Markelle Fultz was their game management, allowing Embiid proper room to breather without cutting back on their pace-pushing tendencies.

Both of Philadelphia's young point guards walked the tightrope of tempo to perfection in the first half, tearing up the floor when it was appropriate and walking it down when it wasn't. That sounds like a very simple thing, but striking that balance is critical for young guards and especially for these young guards. They have a franchise center who thrives in a game where the ball gets walked up and down, and they need to make sure they play to his strengths as well as their own.

And even though this argument has basically already been settled, it's the biggest reason why those two need to be separated in the rotation. The Sixers need that for all 48 minutes, and they need to simplify the thinking for two guys working through various young-player struggles.

• One thing Butler's addition has done is put another finisher on the floor for Simmons to find in transition. With Fultz in the lineup, Simmons and his backcourt mate would often have the same instinct to come back for the ball on a defensive rebound, and that dampens the danger of your fast break attack.

Outside of the ends of quarters and end-game situations — where the Sixers are slowing it down for the best shot — Butler's instincts mesh perfectly with either guy. He tears up the floor like a wide receiver, providing an outlet for the high-level passers they have running the show.

This should help the Sixers get back closer to where they ended last season, brutalizing teams on turnovers and stops.

• The biggest beneficiary of the Jimmy Butler addition? There are debates for a lot of people (including the head coach), but the early returns seem to be pointing in the direction of one JJ Redick.

Redick isn't necessarily doing much different for Philadelphia with Butler in the fold, but he doesn't have to do anywhere near as much heavy lifting for the Sixers as he did pre-trade. With another guy capable of taking over crunch-time offense and lead ballhandler responsibilities, Redick gets to save his legs a little more, with Philadelphia picking and choosing how often they want him to be involved.

The attention Butler draws allows Redick to slip between the cracks, and he has been thriving.

• I did not know Landry Shamet could throw down like this. I don't think Charlotte's announcing crew did, either:

Shamet's role is as clear-cut as it gets: knock down threes, compete on D, and attack the basket on hard closeouts. That has helped him get off to a solid start to his NBA career.

• There are plenty of complaints about Brett Brown's rotation, so I'll give him some kudos for stashing Wilson Chandler on the bench the entire first half. Chandler was on a 12-minute restriction on the second half of a back-to-back, and instead of trying to spread that thin across all 48, the coach relied on him in the half of the game where a back-to-back tends to catch up to everyone.

• Give me the version of Fultz we saw on the floor Saturday night every time. He had some breaks that didn't go his way, but he played with purpose and energy on both ends of the floor, and made several things happen with nothing more than heart and hustle.

That's obviously not all you want out of a kid who was taken with the No. 1 overall pick, but development and progress are going to come if he plays with the attitude he did against Charlotte. He shrugged off mistakes, pulled up with confidence from mid-range, and looked pretty good around the basket on a couple transition pushes that were finished at breakneck speed.

• It was not a brilliant night at the office for Butler on Saturday, but one thing I thought he did quite well was slow the game down in the fourth quarter by seeking out contact and getting to the free-throw line. Beyond all the obvious benefits of adding Butler to this offense, putting another elite foul drawer on the floor with Embiid can help Philadelphia catch their breath in moments of turmoil.

In fact, Butler's contributions on both ends were outstanding in the fourth quarter, and it was the first time all game he really managed to bother Walker on the defensive end. With some timely doubles from Simmons and good help D from Embiid, Butler had Walker second-guessing in the final frame, giving the Sixers the window they needed to put the game away.

• Let's give another shout out to Simmons, who I thought played his best overall game of the season on Saturday night. People will look first to his performance at the free-throw line first, and rightfully so, but it was the ability to switch in and out of roles at a moment's notice that I was most impressed by. He took it to guys like Jeremy Lamb in the post when he had the mismatch, made smart cuts away from the ball, and kept his activity level humming regardless of what his involvement was on a given play.

There's no reason we can't see this Simmons on a nightly basis. How much of the attacker's mindset stems from his confidence at the line, which was clearly better on Saturday than it is on an average night? Tough to say. But he has to keep coming because he's a physically imposing player who needs to do this every night.

• Simmons and Embiid had mind-numbing turnovers in the final minute, and all looked to be lost with just over 30 seconds to play. And then that guy, Jimmy G. Buckets, decided it was winning time.

He came up with an outstanding play on defense, blocking Walker's shot and then somehow saving the ball from going out of bounds to set up a final possession in overtime.

And all he did with the ball there was hit a game-winner with a hand in his face, nearly causing Marc Zumoff to have a heart attack on the broadcast.

That man is a Sixer, and this team might finally have their closer.

The Bad

• I think Jimmy Butler is a great defensive player who is going to make the Sixers outright better in specific matchups, particularly against some of the more wing-heavy teams the Sixers could meet in the playoffs. But there will be some drop-off against other opponents, too, because of the overall flexibility Robert Covington offered them on defense.

You saw a bit of this on Saturday night against Charlotte. Kemba Walker is a tough guy to cover, and he had his way with Butler on him early in the game, scoring or assisting on a lot of the Hornets' early offense. He matched Embiid shot-for-shot, and it was only the big man's effort that kept the Hornets at arm's length over the first 24 minutes.

That was not the case after halftime, and Walker kept coming as Embiid slowed. You don't put that all on Butler, certainly, because a lot of his second-half points came in transition or semi-transition with guys scrambling to find him on pushes. But he was the guy who Walker got it going against, and this team needs more impact defenders to help shoulder the load against elite offensive players.

• Simmons had one of his better halves of the season on Saturday night, and he balanced attacking and distributing against Charlotte fairly well. There was just one problem: turnovers, turnovers, turnovers.

There are a lot of studies that suggest high turnover numbers for young guards can be a good thing, provided they're also piling up assists, but it's the sloppy stuff that's really intolerable. Picking up dribbles, throwing passes with no mustard on them, that's the sort of turnover you just can't have.

• Stop me if you've heard this before: the Sixers got out to a big lead in the first half, let the Hornets slowly claw back into it before halftime, and then eventually conceded it in the second half and had to play catch-up. It's a story that's old as time, and it's certainly wearing thin on the fans in Philadelphia.

If there was some overarching theme that tied together all their blown leads, I would love to point it out. But there's something new each time, and a lot of times the "offensive stagnation" simply comes down to the Sixers not making shots. I understand this is a difference of opinion thing with some readers, but if Embiid is going to be left wide open with no one within 10 feet of him on an above-the-break three, the issue is not him shooting it or designing the play for him to get that shot. It's him not executing because he has the talent and touch to do it.

Regardless of the explanation, though, it would be nice to see the Sixers just win a game without all the nonsense and hysteria. Wire-to-wire wins are a lost art, I suppose.

The Ugly

• Jimmy Butler inadvertently elbowed Kemba Walker in the face on a third quarter play that seemed to end with an and-1 for Philadelphia's new star. After Walker laid on the ground for a few minutes and collected himself, the officials finally decided to call it an offensive foul, before reviewing the play for a potential flagrant for Butler.

You could persuade me one way or another on who the foul belongs to — Butler's motion was completely natural so I'm inclined to believe it shouldn't be a foul on him — but to change it in that fashion was such a transparent overreaction to Walker laying there. That's bad officiating.

• Just had to put it out there that sometimes there's very little you can do to slow down a high-level scorer. When Kemba Walker is knocking down bank-shot threes over Butler in crunch-time, you tip your cap to that guy.


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