Nights like Thursday are why the 76ers traded for Jimmy Butler.
Matched up against the Pacers with a chance to pull into a tie for the third seed in the East, Butler delivered for Philadelphia as Joel Embiid dealt with a bad back and Ben Simmons provided little assistance as a scoring threat in a 120-96 win.
Everybody has an opinion on the trio that was put together in November and just how well they will or won’t fit with each other. And Thursday seemed like the perfect night for the people predicting their downfall.
Embiid was clearly laboring on the court. Simmons started off shooting poorly and had nearly as many turnovers as assists. And this was just the start of a three and a half week stretch that sees the 76ers playing 12 straight games against teams over .500.
The winner of Thursday’s game picked up a 2-1 lead in the season series between the Sixers and Pacers, which is part of what motivated Embiid to take the court.
It was a perfect time to see things go wrong for the 76ers.
But there was Jimmy.
Butler might prefer playing with the ball in his hands more, doing more pick and roll and creating for himself, but that’s not where he shined Thursday.
Simply moving without the ball and running in transition, Butler provided a steady presence to the 76ers’ offense. He tied for the game high in scoring with 27 points by being another cog in coach Brett Brown’s scheme.
The biggest sign of his assimilation was his work distributing. Butler, Embiid and Simmons all had eight assists. The team finished with 38, which was the third-best mark of the season.
The team’s best passing game came two nights prior when Butler’s former Timberwolves squad came to Philadelphia and lost by 42 as the Sixers got 40 dimes. They had 39 exactly one week prior in a win over the Wizards.
The hope was always that with so much talent among the top three players and such a free-flowing offense, the ball would naturally end up where it needed to be as long as guys trusted each other and played intelligently.
And that occurred on Thursday.
Butler’s cutting was phenomenal, and when he had the ball in his hands, he was able to attack the rim and find open shooters when the defense collapsed. Simmons fed as many people as he could while running the show as normal. And Embiid did his best not to force the issue with his bad back, and instead trusted his teammates to help take care of business.
Philadelphia was bound to compete for a top spot in the East this season and contend for the conference championship even before it acquired a four-time All-Star. But by adding Jimmy Buckets, the dynamic changed.
At times, it seemed like Butler just wasn’t being used enough, which was going to make him useless. Why have Jimmy Butler if you aren’t going to have him do what he does best?
As the players have gotten more time together and started to learn how to play alongside one another, however, it’s created more reason for optimism. And Thursday’s win might be the peak of that optimism.
Butler’s role in the offense still doesn’t look completely fleshed out. There are still instances when it feels like he’s being underutilized by not letting him just get the ball in his hands and go.
But he was brought in to do more than just hit game-winners off isolation sets. And Thursday gave us a glimpse of that.
Jimmy was brought in to be the final piece of what was already going on. He was meant to uplift Simmons and Embiid by fitting in with them, not just by adding an element the team missed.
With the most daunting part of the schedule coming up, the ball is moving as well as it ever has for the 76ers, and Butler’s fit is looking better by the day.
There might have been a few more headlines about disgruntled All-Stars than fans would like, but the chemistry is reaching a new level right in time.