May 12, 2019
TORONTO — The partnership between Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler had a chance to go either way when the veteran arrived in Philadelphia in mid-November. Embiid and Butler are famously competitive men, which always has a chance to bring two people closer together. But a clash of alphas can end ugly. The franchise center was not going to give up what he rightfully viewed as "his" team, and Butler has never been afraid to assert his importance.
Perhaps the two men are not best friends today. But the growth they have undergone over the last two months has been critical to where the Sixers are today, and it will be critical for the Sixers once again if they hope to win Game 7 on the road against Toronto.
If a gap between them exists, the two have come to an understanding by not trying to impose their own personality on each other. Butler has made light of this as he has been in the passenger seat for Embiid's postgame availability sessions during the playoffs, and those moments are more significant than you might think.
"I just think I try to remind him to always be himself, always be in a good mood, always smiling. Good game, bad game, whatever it may be. Just always be who you are," Butler told reporters Saturday. "The happy, go-lucky, joyful human being that knows he's fortunate to play basketball."
"I think he has had a significant impact on Joel," Brett Brown said of Butler on Saturday. "I think that the connection between Jimmy and Joel is growing and trending in an incredibly positive way, where it's helping Joel. Those two share candid conversations, and you need that, we need that."
Butler will deny that he has done much to influence Embiid outside of aiding him on the basketball court. His only concern, as he is happy to tell you many times over, is going out and winning when he steps in between the lines, no matter what it takes.
Embiid tells a different side of the story. Butler's habits are not exactly a secret — he regularly makes note of his 5 a.m. workouts, which Butler once admitted were inspired by his friend Mark Wahlberg. He takes great pride of the work that goes into his body and his game, and the example he has set there is one Embiid has taken note of.
“I know to become a better leader you also got to watch and learn from a better example," Embiid told reporters at practice. "Him being here has taught me that just because he’s always on top of everything. Basketball-wise he’s helped me a lot, becoming a better man. Just being on time, or just showing up every game, or just having a better relationship as a leader with my teammates. He doesn’t have to say anything, you just have to watch.”
"It's hard to watch somebody be in a gym before the bus comes to the gym, sweaty and getting shots; it's hard to look at somebody's attention to his health and his body; it's hard to watch somebody perform at this level at this stage, at a level that he has, and not be impressed," Brown added on Saturday.
It is about more than some platitudes about friendship and habits and attitude. The team's increased pick-and-roll usage in the playoffs is a product of both sides buying in and figuring out they need each other. Butler has never been shy about his desire to run it, and Embiid's willingness to commit to the other half of the equation was shaky in the regular season.
The Sixers have transitioned to a steady diet of pick-and-rolls in the postseason, and it has helped get Embiid some easy offense that otherwise isn't coming.
Marc Gasol has flummoxed Embiid in the post, but he is at a disadvantage when he has to defend in space. The threat of Butler turning the corner or pulling up to shoot has been enough to buy Embiid windows of space in this series, and his standout Game 3 performance was aided big time by his co-star.
Butler, obviously, has benefitted as well, because when you have one of the NBA's most-feared big men rolling down the lane, the opposing center has no choice but to hang back longer and further than they'd like from the driver. That opens up space for Butler.
It was not so long ago that Embiid was bristling at how many jumpers he was taking, publicly stating this past winter that he needed to be on the block more and going to work. Figuring out roles in this new environment was a struggle, to say the least.
Embiid's tune has changed as the playoffs have worn on. Embiid is aware on some nights that he will simply have to do the dirty work to get Philadelphia a victory.
"With the way they're guarding me, with double teams or you can see it on pick-and-rolls, Marc is not helping off of me, they're really stuck to me," Embiid said after Philly's Game 6 victory. "I can make the easier decision and get my teammates open by setting great screens, rolling to the basket, finding guys and trying to free them up."
Trust in Butler has helped him get there. Against Boston in last year's playoffs, Embiid was keenly aware of how limited the supporting cast was. If Embiid couldn't put his shoulder into Al Horford's chest and create a look for himself, the Sixers did not have the ballhandling to overcome it. But he has had a first-row seat for Playoff Butler, and he has lived up to this idea of doing whatever has to be done to help the team score.
Over the long-term, Embiid's ability to do damage in tandem with Ben Simmons is what will determine the ceiling of the team. Right now, though, it is his work with Butler that will likely decide if they are appearing in the Eastern Conference Finals or going on vacation.
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