When Elton Brand landed Jimmy Butler, there was excitement, but also concern.
Butler's reputation - fair or not - was in question after an unceremonious departure from Minnesota. There was worry that he didn't get along with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, two young players the Timberwolves were building around.
With the relationship between Butler and Joel Embiid growing on and off the court, those concerns appear to be well in the past. The duo starred in the Sixers' impressive 116-95 win over the Raptors in Game 3 Thursday night at the Wells Fargo Center (see observations).
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It was a glimpse of what they can do with their powers combined.
"There is a recognition that they need each other," Brett Brown said pregame. "There is a recognition that they will be paired together a lot in crunch-time situations. There is an appreciation I see from a distance, watching the two evolve, for each other's talent. There is a steady growth emerging - it's two excellent players with strong personalities recognizing everybody needs a little bit of help. The belief that they can help each other, that they need each other, I think is genuine."
Brown couldn't be more on point with that "strong personalities" bit. These are two players that are never afraid to speak their mind and certainly aren't afraid to hurt feelings.
But Butler's ultra competitive nature hasn't hurt the Sixers in the least. While there was the report that Butler had "aggressively challenged" Brown in a heated film session, there hasn't been much else. There certainly hasn't been anything to suggest that Butler hasn't enjoyed his time with the Sixers' two budding stars in Embiid and Simmons.
In fact, it seems to be the exact opposite.
"Obviously, he is a force to be reckoned with," Butler said of Embiid, "especially when he is making trey balls like he does, but then attacking the rim at the same time. I think that's how we've got to play, you know, you get the ball to him, he's going to score, make the right play. Same thing with myself, same thing with Ben [Simmons], you can go down the line, but all in all, we share the ball."
Since his arrival, Butler has been criticized for sharing the ball a little too much. In Games 2 and 3, he seemed to strike a pretty good balance, especially Thursday night with 22 points and nine assists. He also added nine rebounds and two steals. The only other Sixer to achieve those numbers in the playoffs is Charles Barkley.
It's evident that Butler has elevated his game since the postseason began. As the players shared the podium postgame, a normal occurence lately, Embiid acknowledged that playoff Jimmy Butler is a whole different animal.
Obviously, he's a great player. I've noticed a difference. Playoff Jimmy is a different player. It doesn't matter. Both playoff or regular season Jimmy, both guys are the type of guys you want on the team because when it matters, you know when it's the last shot or the fourth quarter, you know that he's going to be there. He's going to show up, no matter what he has going on. The way we've been adjusting and the way we've been playing together, I still feel like we have so much potential, especially with Tobias [Harris], Ben [Simmons], JJ [Redick].
It's scary to think that the Sixers, just 17 games into their version 3.0, could just be scratching the surface, but it's possible.
Embiid struggled through Games 1 and 2, but Game 3 unlocked the potential of what the team can be when he and Butler are both clicking. Embiid looked more like himself, pouring in 33 points while adding 10 rebounds and five blocks in just 28 minutes.
He also looked like he was having an absolute blast out there, celebrating a made three with a shimmy and throwing down a windmill dunk when the lane opened up in the fourth quarter.
Just Jo being Jo.
"I think for everybody that knows me, you know, I need it," Embiid said. "When I have fun, my game just changes. I'm always told that if I don't smile during the game, I'm either having a bad game or I'm not into it. When I know that to get my game going, I got to have fun on the court. At the same time, I got to make plays, but that part of the theatrics, it has to happen for me and the game is more fun that way. We all have fun as a team. You can see it lifts my teammates and we all do a good job."
Of course everything is more fun when you win - especially in convincing fashion to take a 2-1 series lead.
"I do believe we played incredibly hard tonight," Butler said, "which is how we have to play at home or on the road, but I think more than anything we enjoyed ourselves. Like [Embiid] said, we were out there having fun. Obviously, it's fun to win. It's fun to make shots. But if we keep that energy up I think we'll be fine."
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