There were plenty of good subplots to the latest collision between the 76ers (17-9) and Toronto Raptors (21-5), not the least of which was that the Atlantic Division foes entered the evening with the top two win totals in the NBA.
But front and center Wednesday was the wrinkle of Jimmy Butler being injected into the rivalry, and him getting his first opportunity to face good friend Kawhi Leonard since both were traded.
On an individual level, each All-Star stood out, with Butler posting a season and game-high 38 points (15-27 fg, 4-7 3fg, 4-4 3fg) and 10 rebounds, and Leonard a team-best 36 points and nine boards.
It was Toronto, however, that emerged from Scotiabank Arena with a 113-102 victory. That, not personal production, was all that was on Butler’s mind.
“Not good enough,” Butler said of his performance. “We didn’t get the win.”
Butler’s double-double was his second of the season. Both have come with the Sixers.
“I don’t [care] how many points I scored, I want to win. We haven’t won here in so many years, but I think it’s a good test for us though.”
When Butler buried a 3-pointer late in Wednesday’s first half to give the Sixers a 46-40 lead, the prospects of snapping a 12-game losing streak in the North seemed promising.
Leonard then proceeded to turn the tilt around, leading Toronto on a momentum-changing 13-0 run that gave the Raptors a 53-48 edge at the break.
Not only did the two-time Defensive Player of the Year use a vicious dunk to tie the game at 46-46, he came up with the steal that ultimately preceded Toronto’s first go-ahead basket of the night.
“He’s a great player,” Brett Brown said of Leonard, who he coached with the San Antonio Spurs.
Butler managed to carry his groove over into Wednesday’s third quarter (his 16 first-half points were a season high), and helped mount a spurt that briefly nudged the Sixers back in front, 74-73.
Leonard answered by scoring the next five points, helping put Toronto up, 78-77, going into the fourth period.
Joel Embiid (10 pts, 12 reb) opened the final frame with an authoritative slam, but Raptors back-up big man Jonas Valanciunas (26 pts, 8 reb) emerged as the driving force behind a 13-2 run that tightened Toronto’s grip for good.
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Impressions of Butler
Jimmy Butler has had plenty of big scoring games over the course of his eight-year career. The Sixers also didn’t achieve their goal of beating Toronto, which probably explains why afterwards the four-time All-Star didn’t sound overly impressed with his season-high 38-point effort.
What we will do, however, is provide you with quotes from some of the other participants in Wednesday’s showdown, and let their words about Butler’s showing speak for themselves:
“The Jimmy Butler acquisition is ridiculously exciting. I thought he was excellent tonight. I think Jimmy showed why he’s an All-Star. He came and gave us some tremendous things.”
“He carried us offensively.”
“I think he was playing the way he plays. I think he was more aggressive. He was knocking down shots. Not everybody was feeling it tonight, so he really stepped up for us, and kept us in the game.”
The last time Butler went for at least 38 points was when he hit the number on the nose for the Minnesota Timberwolves this past February against his first club, the Chicago Bulls. Butler has now tallied 38 points or more in a game on 13 separate occasions.
Putting Loss in Perspective
Were the Sixers pleased that Wednesday’s visit to Scotiabank Arena – their second of the season – ended in defeat? No.
Did they see evidence of progress relative to the team’s October 30th visit to the venue, when it lost 129-112? Most definitely, it sounded like.
“If you go and look at our first-shot defense, it was outstanding,” said Brett Brown.
On top of that, Brown was plenty encouraged by what Butler brought to the table.
One issue the Sixers ran into in Round 2 against Toronto was that the Raptors finished with a 17-11 offensive rebound advantage. That disparity translated to 22 second-chance points for Toronto, and 12 more shots taken than the Sixers.
Another trouble spot Brown cited from Wednesday’s game was turnovers. The Sixers committed 21, which led to 27 points off turnovers for the Raptors.
“I think we really gave ourselves a chance to win with our effort, but the execution wasn’t there,” said JJ Redick (25 pts, 5 3fg).
“It’s December 5th, [against] the league’s best team, but we leave disappointed,” Brown said. “We also leave we feel a little bit smarter on what it’s going to take to beat the best team right now in the NBA.”
Watch it once, play it twice, or as many times as you’d like. The play was that nice.
The Sixers’ brief, but challenging, two-game road trip comes to an end Friday at Detroit, which entered Wednesday’s action even with the Sixers in the loss column in the Eastern Conference standings. The Sixers and Pistons have met twice previously this season, with the home team winning each time.