In the first half of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Monday night, the Philadelphia 76ers were absolutely nails while the Toronto Raptors, who dominated absolutely every facet of Game 1, could not get anything going.
Even with a Joel Embiid who looked like how he felt -- struggling with the stomach flu -- the Sixers outrebounded the Raptors by 20 in that first half. They held the Raptors to 32 percent shooting, including only 3-of-15 from 3, while seeming to make every 3 of their own. Their bench, considered one of this team's greatest weaknesses, was destroying the Raptors' bench via excellent play from Greg Monroe and James Ennis. Jimmy Butler, who was a non-entity in Game 1, was aggressive on both ends, scoring 13 points in the first half and playing the high-level defense the Sixers need from him in order to upset the Raptors in this series. This may not have been the best version of the Sixers -- the best version of the Sixers has an Embiid who dominates, and who doesn't look like he's ready to vomit -- but this was a very, very good version of a Sixers team that has an incredibly high ceiling.
And yet, because of 13 Sixers turnovers, Philly led by only 13 at half. It could have been up by 20, or even 25. This game could have been on its way to a blowout. Instead, the game was still within reach for the Raptors.
A confession: At halftime, I thought the Raptors had the Sixers exactly where they wanted them. I thought that, after the Sixers were unable to pull away in that dominant first half, the Raptors were going to win it. You never want to be down 13 at half, but if there's a good scenario in which to be down 13 at half, it was this: With the other team's star ailing, with the other team playing some sloppy basketball, and with your open shots not falling -- yet.
Enter Jimmy Butler.
It is difficult to overstate the pressure that was on the Sixers to win Game 2. In the history of the NBA, there have been 282 teams that have gone down 2-0 in a seven-game series. Only 20 of those teams have gone on to win the series. That's seven percent.
And if the Sixers were to go on and lose this second-round series, that could mark a huge setback for the years-long Process that brought so much pain to Philadelphia 76ers fans, followed by so much promise. If they were to lose this series in resounding fashion, who knows what that could mean for the franchise's future? Would Butler want to run it back as a Sixer? Would Tobias Harris? Would this season's trades that so accelerated the Process look like foolish, impatient, NBA-altering moves?
The reasons the Sixers took a chance on the combustible Butler less than a year before he enters unrestricted free agency were on full display Monday night. Two nights after Butler was dominated on defense and was a non-entity on offense, he took all that pressure and willingly put them on his shoulders. He was the player the Sixers traded for. He came out with poise and aggression, setting the tone for the Sixers in that dominating first half. He took the mantle of the team's alpha dog on a night when none of Embiid, Harris or Ben Simmons was particularly good on the offensive end. He and Simmons played good enough defense on a Kawhi Leonard who suddenly looks like MVP-level Kawhi again -- Leonard still scored 35 points, but Simmons and Butler were pests to him all night.
Butler finished with 30 points, including making all eight free throws and four of his 10 3s. He went all out on the glass and grabbed 11 rebounds. Most importantly, Butler was the end-of-game killer the Sixers needed him to be. With just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter and the shot clock running down, the Raptors doubled Embiid in the post. This was a problem for the Sixers: The Raptors had mounted a furious comeback and were now only down by four. Embiid somehow found an open Butler on the wing with a pass that looked more like a hook shot. Butler, legs splayed, launched the 3, and it found nothing but the bottom of the net. The Raptors still had a fighting chance, and Kyle Lowry still had a couple of 3s left in him to make it a nail-biter, but that Jimmy Butler 3 was ultimately the play that broke the Raptors.
Wait -- did I say Jimmy Butler?
Turns out it actually wasn't Jimmy Butler at all who was out there for the Sixers.
"This was James Butler," head coach Brett Brown told reporters afterward. "That was the adult in the room."
Butler is an inspirational story with a magnetic personality. He's also someone who backs down to no man. Sometimes that is to his detriment. He's an incredibly divisive player in the NBA, loved by many but despised by others, with antics that range from motivating to inciting to simply being a jerk. He tore apart two teams in a row before forcing his way to the Sixers. In many ways, this season is Butler's last shot at greatness: His last shot to be considered a franchise player, to become a max-contract player, to be the guy who truly does put winning above all else, in his words but also in his spirit.
The Sixers had their backs up against the wall on Monday night. And it was James Butler who delivered.