Following a disastrous end to his Minnesota tenure and a dip in production with Philadelphia, Jimmy Butler has been the subject of significant derision as the postseason approaches. Many have scoffed at the idea of paying him $190 million this summer, and the addition of Tobias Harris brought doubt over Butler’s long-term future with the Sixers.
But if Wednesday’s 118-115 victory over the Celtics was any indication, Philadelphia’s immediate Finals hopes could largely depend on Butler. He may not be a Sixer for the rest of his career, yet to close 2019, Butler will be an integral focal point of Philadelphia’s crunch-time attack.
Butler morphed into Chicago-era Jimmy Buckets in the fourth quarter, carrying Philadelphia back from a nine-point deficit with less than nine minutes remaining. Butler banged home three triples between 8:40 left in the fourth and the five-minute mark. He then scored six more points in the final four minutes. 15 of Butler’s 22 points on Wednesday came in the fourth, including a dagger corner jumper with 5.5 seconds remaining. Boston’s defense began to dive at every Butler fake late in the fourth, leading to an easy dime to Tobias Harris with 1:54 to play. Wednesday’s fourth quarter was the best stretch of Butler’s Philadelphia tenure.
Philadelphia’s victory over Boston on Wednesday represented a marked change over last year’s East semifinals. The Sixers were stifled by Boston in the fourth quarter throughout their five-game exit, as Joel Embiid was stifled by Al Horford and Boston effectively sagged off of Ben Simmons. The shot clock drained and Embiid settled for threes. The turnovers piled up, too. With Butler and Harris, though, the calculus appears to have changed.
Butler has legitimate late-game credentials. Harris is able to attack off the bounce more effectively than Dario Saric and Robert Covington. He’s more than a capable shooter, too, shooting over 40% from three in each of the last two seasons. Philadelphia is likely on par with Milwaukee, Boston and Toronto as the postseason approaches. If Butler performs in the playoffs like he did on Wednesday night, they could very well roll through the East into June.
Butler’s clutch prowess will be a significant factor in Philadelphia’s Finals aspirations, but his performance still pales in comparison to the importance of Embiid. Philadelphia’s superstar center could not solve Horford’s riddle in the 2018 playoffs. The size advantage felt irrelevant as Horford held his ground and stayed home on Embiid’s bevy of fakes.
This year’s version of Embiid is a different animal. It’s almost counterintuitive to focus on Butler on a night when Embiid dominated with 37 points and 22 rebounds. Wednesday’s Shaq-level effort came three days after Embiid dueled Giannis’ 52-point effort with 40 points and 15 rebounds in a road victory over the Bucks. Embiid is in a dogfight with Nikola Jokic for first-team All-NBA. He’s a worthy top-five finisher in the MVP race.
With Embiid’s ascension and Butler’s crunch-time acumen, the 76ers enter the 2019 playoffs more equipped to generate points late in the fourth quarter. Their downfall last season has morphed into a strength, with four impressive playmakers sharing the floor. Butler took the lead role on Wednesday night. Don’t be surprised if he grabs the reigns once again in April and May.