The NBA playoffs will begin on April 13, and Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler will need each other the same way they needed each other to beat the Boston Celtics, 118-115, on Wednesday night.
Joel Embiid was in Philadelphia on Tuesday, taking the day off while the 76ers were in Charlotte winning a close game over the Hornets. Tobias Harris, JJ Redick, Ben Simmons and Butler all scored 20-plus points in the win, exerting more energy than normal to make up for Embiid’s absence before heading back to Philly where a juggernaut of an opponent would be rested and waiting for them the next day.
Butler was exhausted.
“I was tired as [expletive], I’m not even going to lie to you,” he said after Wednesday’s game. “That back-to-back got me, and we didn’t have Jo last night either. So, quarters one through three I was trying, but it wasn’t going my way.”
Before the game Butler pleaded with Embiid: If the big man could just get the Sixers to the fourth quarter, Butler promised that he would be there.
“That was my job tonight, and he showed up and in the fourth he was fantastic,” Embiid said.
Butler was unassuming and often invisible through the first three quarters. He had curious shot selection and was getting torched by Jayson Tatum. But when the final stanza began, Butler arrived. He scored 15 of his 22 points in the fourth, including a dagger with 4.7 seconds left.
“I told him that I needed him tonight, that I needed this win,” Embiid said of his pregame conversation with Butler. “He’s our best closer.”
The ideal situation, of course, is for Butler to be efficient and effective through all four quarters. He doesn’t have to be heat-checking and a dominant scorer for 48 minutes, but he needs to be involved, visible and felt by the other team.
That’s something Brett Brown said he’s trying been to figure out, and he’s still working toward it.
“I still don’t feel entirely equipped to jump into the playoffs,” Brown said. “You’re still searching a little bit on how to tap into Jimmy at times and integrate Tobias into this mix. I like, obviously, the talent and fire power that we have, but the nuances and intricacies, I don’t feel that.”
The Sixers aren’t there yet. They haven’t found the right balance for Butler to maintain for the full length of a game, but they’ve found a way to function as they work through a learning process. When a player is down or struggling, another is there to pick up the slack. Butler knew he wasn’t going to be able to go full bore all night and Embiid was there to anchor the Sixers and weather the storm.
Wednesday’s game was important. The Sixers needed to beat the Celtics before heading into the playoffs, they needed the proof that they have the ability to best the team that cut their postseason run short last year. On paper, it was just another regular-season game, but it was more than that in the hearts and minds of the players.
With the weight of the game on his shoulders, Embiid was outstanding against Boston. His brilliance at every turn was what kept the Sixers in the game until he had almost nothing left in the tank. He did exactly what Butler asked of him: He delivered the Sixers to the fourth quarter and then Butler made his mark.
“He was a man tonight,” Brown said of Butler in the final period. “He was an adult, he had swagger, he had this belief that he was going to find a way to score or get other people involved. You could feel it. I could see it."
With a one-two punch, Embiid and Butler finished off the Celtics like a duo that has learned to recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
With the Sixers ahead by three and less than a minute left to play, Irving drove into the lane. Embiid was stalking his prey and came up with a monster block. On the other end, Butler hit the shot that put the game just out of reach.
As the Sixers approach the postseason, this kind of understanding is necessary. Embiid is the driving force behind everything the Sixers do, but he can’t do it alone. There are going to be nights when it’s Harris who needs to step up, or Redick, or Simmons.
Until Brown finds a way to keep Butler engaged and in productive situations throughout the game, the team can at least count on what Butler brings to the end of one.
“You can call me whatever you want to call me -- franchise player, superstar, whatever. It doesn’t matter,” Embiid said. “It’s about playing hard and coming out every night and trying to help the team get wins, and obviously I can’t do it alone.”