Why was it that the 76ers (11-7) coveted Jimmy Butler so much?
As his eight-year NBA resume makes clear, he is a tough, consistent, and, above all else, elite two-way performer.
In the span of 32.7 astounding seconds Saturday at Spectrum Center, those qualities shined through, and allowed Butler to help send his new squad to a dramatic 122-119 overtime victory over the Charlotte Hornets (7-8).
Yes, Butler’s winning shot – an isolation 3-pointer from the wing with 0.03 seconds to go – will probably get the bulk of the engagements out there in the NBA social highlight world.
But it was the preceding play, with the Sixers desperately seeking a stop, that ultimately positioned Butler for his clutch offensive heroics.
Kemba Walker, the at times endlessly potent guad, has been a nemesis of Butler going back to their Big East days – Butler at Marquette, Walker at UConn.
Saturday, Walker was giving Butler and the Sixers everything they could handle, and then some. The two-time All-Star was riding a ridiculous scoring wave, having already poured in a Hornets franchise-record 60 points entering the final half minute of overtime.
You best believe he was thirsty for more.
As Walker set up on the perimeter with the clock winding down, Butler got into his stance, ready for what was very likely going to be one last chance to stop a long-time rival.
Walker made his move with about 20 seconds to go, angling towards the baseline. Butler stayed in front of him the whole time.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, Butler saw Walker start to rise up – a decision that Butler later acknowledged surprised him.
Butler glance was enough for him to instinctively extend his right arm, and swat for a piece of Walker’s jumper. A piece of the shot is what Butler got, then subsequently managed to give the Sixers possession by making an impressive over the shoulder toss back in bounds.
Wilson Chandler snatched the ball out of the air, the Sixers called timeout, and the rest became beautiful, poetic history.
“It’s a shot that I work on a lot,” Butler said of his winning three.
In fact, he said he took the same shot about 50 times earlier Saturday morning, as part of his individual workout routine.
“I’m just so glad it went in, and that my teammates and coaches had enough faith in me.”
Butler finished Saturday’s hard-fought back-and-forth affair – the latest between the Sixers and Hornets (the three games in their season series have been decided by a total of six points, with two of the games going to overtime) – with 15 points (4-11 fg, 1-3 3fg, 6-7 ft), three rebounds, four assists, two steals, and two blocked shots.
Stats aside, he backed up his pedigree as a primetime player, coming through – on both ends of the court – when his club was most in need.
“That’s what the great players can do,” said Brett Brown. “That’s what we spoke about with the inclusion of him, that he’s got the ability…to create his own looks, and that is a rare gift in the NBA, those players who can generally do that at a high rate, and he’s one of them, and he’s ours.”
Brown had put the ball in Butler’s hands with 16.6 seconds to go in regulation, moments after Walker tied the game at 110-110 on free throws. Butler, however, came up empty on a turnaround attempt at the top of the key, thus prompting an extra five minutes.
“To see him be able to make amends – he was disappointed he missed in regulation – and deliver as he did, i think it’s a tremendous feel good story, and his teammates certainly shared in his assistance,” Brown said.
At the outset of Saturday’s game, the Sixers’ second in as many nights, the team jumped out to a terrific start. Joel Embiid (33 pts, 11 reb, 2 blk) had scored 21 points before three minutes were played in the second period, and the Sixers led by 17.
Walker, though, was relentless. He erupted for 19 points in the fourth quarter alone, even managing to bank home a go-ahead triple with 45 seconds remaining.
Despite his strong start and timely late free throws, Embiid didn’t hit a field goal again until OT. He later sunk a pair of free throws to make it a 119-114 game, but the Hornets snapped off five points in a row to lock things up once more.
The stage was set for Butler’s memorable finish.
“A win is a win in this league, they’re so very hard to come by,” said the eight-year vet. “I’m just glad I was part of it, keep this thing rolling, and get as many as we can.”
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We know that Jimmy Butler prides himself on being a top two-way contributor, but in Saturday’s victory, he had the best of both worlds – signature offensive and defensive plays in the closing seconds of overtime.
So, afterwards, as he replayed his role in the win in his mind, what was it that stood out to the 29-year old the most – the clutch stop, or the clutch shot?
“I’m going to go with defense,” Butler said.
Seeing that he was the primary defender assigned to Kemba Walker, Butler took his fellow All-Star’s historic performance personally.
“Kudos to Kemba. I’ve been saying that since college. I’ve been having that nightmare for a long time now, but I think the defensive end is what won us the game in the end.”
It’s been one of the most remarkable aspects of Joel Embiid’s dominant start to the season – just how consistently good he’s been to begin games.
Against Charlotte Saturday, the All-Star connected on his first four shots, and had 21 points by the nine-minute mark of the second quarter. From there, however, his luck changed.
The Hornets managed to keep Embiid out of the paint a bit better, and the big man wouldn’t hit another field goal until overtime.
Although his shot wasn’t falling,the 7-footer picked up his assertiveness in the fourth quarter. He attacked the basket right from the start of the period, and was rewarded with free throws.
Embiid hit three free throws in the last 27 seconds of Saturday’s fourth quarter, and two more in overtime. They were vital to victory.
“I put my mindset that I feel that those guys can’t guard me,” said Embiid, referring to his Charlotte counterparts. “They can do their best, but obviously I’m going to do whatever I want, and that’s score and get to the free throw line. So, my mindset at the end of the fourth quarter and overtime was just every time I have the ball, attack.”
That’s what he did, and the Sixers were the beneficiaries.
In the middle of Saturday’s fourth quarter, the Sixers seemed to be well in control, and Ben Simmons was a big reason why.
During one particular two-minute stretch, he knocked down three of four free throw attempts, assisted on a Jimmy Butler jumper, and threw down a dunk of his own to push the SIxers’ margin to 10.
Simmons left Charlotte with his 12th double-double of the season, and was an assist shy of manufacturing his third triple-double of the year.
The Aussie continues to draw rave reviews from the All-Star newcomer.
“He’s so calm,” said Butler. “He’s always telling everybody the right things, positive things, and he scores the ball at will, and passes the ball on time, on target. He’s huge. He’s always going to be that. He’s a key piece of this thing.”
The winning shot…
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) November 18, 2018
…and the walk-off interview.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) November 18, 2018
After spending the majority of the month of November on the road, the Sixers will welcome a change of scenery in the weeks ahead. Nine of their next 12 games will be played at home, starting with Monday’s match-up with the Phoenix Suns. As of Saturday, the Suns held the last-place position in the Western Conference, with a record of 3-11.