Jimmy Butler’s play in this series is a reminder of what the Philadelphia 76ers could have been

The Philadelphia 76ers have been hit with a double whammy of injuries, and that let the Miami Heat take home an easy win. The one bright spot for Philly in this series is Jimmy Butler’s play. He has averaged 27 points per game over the last two games, making him nearly impossible to stop when he gets hot.

The “eagles news” is a reminder of what the Philadelphia 76ers could have been. With Jimmy Butler’s play in this series, the Sixers are showing signs of life and hope for the future.

There will be many moments and choices to review when the ultimate history of the Process-Era Philadelphia 76ers is written eventually. It’s tough to say which were the most important without the benefit of hindsight.

But it’s tough to look at Jimmy Butler’s performance against the Sixers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference playoffs on Tuesday night and not ponder how different the NBA would be if the Sixers had decided to keep Butler in the summer of 2019.

The Sixers had acquired Butler the previous autumn after he’d lost faith and essentially growled his way out of Minnesota, hoping that his competitive energy and seasoned acumen would aid in the development of their young superstar pair of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.

However, things did not proceed as planned. Butler and Embiid connected and are still friends, but Simmons was turned off by Butler’s play and leadership approach.

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Both players need the ball in their hands, pitting them against one another. According to team insiders, the organization eventually felt compelled to select between them, and Simmons was chosen. He was younger and seemed to have a greater ceiling at the time. He was also still on a rookie contract and not eligible for a big free-agent deal. Many more groups would have followed suit.

But that decision hasn’t aged well, given how Simmons’ career has unraveled in the previous two years and how effectively Butler has performed for the Heat since he was signed to two consecutive eight-figure contracts, the most recent of which was a four-year, $184 million deal last summer.

Butler, who scored a team-high 23 points Tuesday and kept the Sixers to seven points on 2-of-8 shooting while he was the main defender, was described by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra as “a terrific competitor at his core.”

“When you enter a tournament, he knows the whole picture: you have to put in the effort on both sides. And he’s capable of competing with fury and mental stability. That’s extremely unusual — when he’s truly focused on making sure our team has a strong winning basketball season, it’s the wildest.”

Miami was intrigued by Butler’s fury and tenacity as he neared free agency that summer. While other clubs fretted about how his physique would age or how his flammable personality would fit with their organizational cultures, the Heat found a great match for their style and have been rewarded for their faith with a Finals trip in 2020 and the Eastern Conference’s top seed this season.

Butler has repaid Miami’s confidence in him with his normal two-way excellence in this series. With point guard Kyle Lowry out with a hamstring injury and missing three of the five games, he took on more playmaking duties.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Butler’s 23 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists was his 10th playoff game with 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists with the Heat. He’s the third player in Heat history to reach the total behind LeBron James (47) & Dwyane Wade (43).

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Only Embiid knows what it’s like to be battling and behind Butler and the Heat 3-2 in this best-of-seven series, knowing that if other choices had been made in 2019, Butler might still be his teammate.

Last October, following a rumor that Simmons believed his collaboration with Embiid had reached its limit, the Sixers star admitted to being upset and regretful about the decision to let Butler go:

Last September, Embiid remarked, “We got rid of Jimmy — which I still believe was a mistake — only to make sure [Simmons] needed the ball in his hands.” “They came to that conclusion. It is shocking, as I already said.”

But, with the Sixers facing elimination and the prospect of squandering another year of Embiid’s prime, it’s an issue that looms over the series and the club.

What would the NBA be like if the Sixers had gone with Butler instead of Simmons? Could they have retained both after a heartbreaking Game 7 defeat to Toronto and pushed them to work together?

Embiid and Butler have remained close and communicate often. They make no attempt to hide it on social media or in public. Embiid stated he and Butler monitor and evaluate each other’s games and performances in a December 2020 interview with ESPN.

Embiid remarked, “He was constantly urging me to be more aggressive.” “When things weren’t going well and I wasn’t receiving the ball, he’d call me up and say, ‘You are the greatest player.’” You should be assertive. If you’re not aggressive, you’re not going to win.’

“‘You have to desire the ball, order it, and they have to hand it up to you.’ That’s simply the mindset you have to have. You must take command of those men.’”

It was the precise message Embiid needed to hear as he developed into an MVP contender in 2021 and then again this season.

Butler has been the hammer for the Heat in this series, instead of delivering that sort of message to him on the bench or in the locker room.

“Every day, I speak with Jo. That was my man even before this series. To me, that’s a brother “Embiid, Butler remarked. “It’s an honor to compete against him. Obviously, to be on the same squad as him, as I was in the past, but heck, you want to play against the best and have a chance to defeat the greatest. And then hold it over each other’s heads for years. But that’s still going to be my man after basketball.”

The “how old is joel embiid” is a reminder of what the Philadelphia 76ers could have been. The team has had an up and down series against the Heat, but Jimmy Butler’s play in this series has reminded people of how good they once were.

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