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April 30, 2019

Adult in the gym: Jimmy Butler allows Sixers to win ugly vs. Toronto in Game 2

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043019-JimmyButler-USAToday Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today

Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry (7) shoots the ball past Philadelphia 76ers forward Jimmy Butler (23) in the first quarter in game two of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena.

TORONTO — Brett Brown was so excited about the performance of star wing Jimmy Butler on Monday night that he gave him a name that doesn't even belong to him. After a rugged, relentless performance on both sides of the floor, 30 points and 11 rebounds and five assists later, Butler inherited a new title.

"This was James Butler. That was the adult in the gym," Brown said after the win. "He willed us [through] a lot of different situations...Kind of all over the place, he was a stud."

The subject in question was quick to correct him afterward.

"My name isn't James, it's literally Jimmy," Butler said at the podium after the game. 

Whatever you want to call him, he was the player of the game for Philadelphia. After drifting through a lopsided Game 1 defeat to Toronto, Butler was determined not to let his opponent decide the outcome of the next game.

You're not always able to determine whether Butler is going to have a huge offensive performance on a given night, because so much of his damage ends up being done in the fourth quarters of games. But Butler's urgency is usually clear one way or another within the first five minutes of the Sixers hitting the floor. On Monday night, it was clear which version of Butler we were going to get.

The first time we saw Butler on Monday night, he was air-balling a shot to close a terrible possession for Philadelphia. It was the sequence that followed which proved more telling, with Butler matching Kyle Lowry step for step in transition to deny his layup attempt at the other end.


When we have seen Butler at his worst, and we saw that in Game 1, he doesn't make those plays. He lets one end bleed into the other, with poor defensive possessions turning into passive offense and the cycle continues until the final horn sounds.

There was none of that against Toronto on Monday. On plays where he kicked the ball into the corner in Game 1, Butler attacked the rim in Game 2. On plays where he made unnecessary gambles in Game 1, he trusted the team's defensive structure in Game 2, making rotations when necessary without compromising their integrity elsewhere.

The telltale sign of what was to come may have been Butler deciding to let it fly from deep early, something he has been reluctant to do during his time in Philadelphia. There was a wrist ailment that coincided with the disappearance of his outside shot for a time midseason, and the shots sometimes come in bunches or not at all. 

When all was said and done, he took 10 threes on Monday night, the most he has attempted in one game since joining Philly in mid-November. It is no coincidence that his last high-volume game from deep was on March 20th, when he played the hero in the Sixers' triumphant win over the Boston Celtics.

Trying to find the right place between aggression and team basketball has not been easy for any of Philly's big guns this year, Butler included. Butler has been the undisputed alpha on his teams for years now, only to walk into a situation where Embiid was the head honcho. On the other side of that equation is the franchise big man, who was relatively unchallenged as the alpha in the room before a man in Butler's mold arrived.

If there were any differences as people or basketball teammates in those early, awkward times, Butler and Embiid have seemingly put them aside, working together to lift each other up in recent weeks. 

It was Butler's turn to do the heavy lifting this time. Embiid played one of his worst offensive games in quite a while in Game 2, but Butler continued to preach team-first mentality while sharing the podium with Embiid after the game.

"All in all it was a team effort," Butler said. "I always get back to defense. We get stops and we can take it to the open floor...when we’re playing like that and guarding like that we’re such a good team. We definitely have to continue to do it and we know that on any given night it’s gonna be somebody’s night. We have a group of guys where anybody can get hot and anybody can put the ball in the basket."

His teammates were happy to put a little more emphasis on Butler individually, as teammates often do.

"You can just tell when he is being more aggressive to score," JJ Redick said. "I think he has an unbelievable feel for the game, and he can recognize when he needs to create with as physical as it was tonight. And then [with Toronto] just sort of sending multiple defenders at everybody really, on every play, it was a great night for him to put his head down and be the guy."

Being the guy doesn't mean you're on an island, obviously. With the game on a knife's edge in the fourth, it was the two alphas connecting on a play that looked impossible from media seating and just as difficult on second viewing, with Embiid hitting Butler right on the money for a monster three in crunch time.

And Butler, according to his head coach, did not spend the game demanding the ball or barking at teammates to get out of his way, as you might expect given the reputation he arrived to Philly with. It was Butler, according to Brown, who approached Jonah Bolden coming out of a timeout and told him to step up and shoot with confidence if and when the ball came his way.

Less than a minute later, there was Bolden in the corner, knocking down a three the Sixers desperately needed to preserve separation on the scoreboard.

The Jimmy Butler experience has its twists and turns. Some days, he waltzes through the room with country music blaring from his iPhone, shrugging off questions to lose himself within a Brad Paisley song. Other days he arrives as a tour de force of personality with a shit-eating grin on his face, ready to meet a barrage of inquiries with brutal honesty and more patience than reporter types probably deserve.

But the desire to win and the self-confidence to get it done is always there, lurking close to the surface. The Sixers may not get three more 30-point games from Butler in this series, but they will need the man who finds his groove in the center of Philadelphia's chaos, who always believes there is enough on hand to get it over the line.

"I know what I’m capable of, I know what my guy right here is capable of," Butler said as he sat at the podium next to Embiid on Monday night, "and we just gotta go hoop and stay together through good and through bad and we’ll be fine."

"We know how good of a team we have, good coaches and my teammates. We have the utmost confidence in everybody on our roster and I don’t think pride had too much to do with it. The game’s easy, the game’s simple. Just go out there and compete."

When Butler competes as he did in Game 2, the Sixers are tough to beat.


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