There were various reasons the Sixers won Game 2 against the Toronto Raptors. Brett Brown moved chess pieces around defensively — putting Ben Simmons on Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid on Pascal Siakam, and Tobias Harris on Marc Gasol — which led to a record-setting defensive performance. Not to mention, the Raptors missed shots that usually fall — Danny Green missed an open game-tying shot. Greg Monroe and James Ennis were second and fourth on the team in scoring, helping one of the worst benches in the league.
Chief among them was Jimmy Butler taking on the persona of “James” Butler. Recording a team-high 30 points, he made all eight of his free throws and 4 of his career-high 10 3-point attempts. In the fourth quarter alone, Butler recorded 12 out of the team’s 25 points, delivering whenever the Sixers demanded an answer to a Toronto score. He compensated for the lack of firepower from the surrounding starters — one of the highest-scoring lineups in a small sample size in the regular season — who combined to shoot 25% from the field on 36 attempts.
Butler needed it, too. After dropping 36 points in the first game of the playoffs, Butler was background noise (16.3 usage rate) in the next five games, averaging 10.6 points on 47.9% true shooting. Some called Butler all but washed up.
If Jimmy G. (“G” stands for “gets”) Buckets is the nickname he earned after a breakout season with Chicago, “James” Butler embodies the reason Elton Brand traded Dario Saric and Robert Covington — both of whom once beloved for their Philadelphian nature — for a disgruntled Butler in early November.
”This was James Butler,” Brett Brown said in the post-game presser. “That was the adult in the gym. He was just a tremendous sort of rock. He willed us to a lot of different situations. He was a stud. He really was an adult in the gym.”
To which Butler responded: “My name isn’t James. It is literally Jimmy.” Butler immediately shifted the credit to his teammates. “It was a team effort,” he said of the Sixers’ holding the Raptors to 89 points on 36.3 percent shooting. “I always go back to defense. We get stops, and we’re taking off into the open floor. Guys are making plays, like Jo [Embiid] and Ben [Simmons]. Whenever we’re playing like that, guarding like that, we’re such a good team.”
Cutting slack to the starters, though, as Butler posited above, paints the wrong picture. After all, none of them played an outstanding game. Following an impressive game 1 performance marked by an uptick in aggression, Ben Simmons was either repeatedly out-muscled by Kawhi or otherwise offbeat (missing a few key reads: passing to Ennis instead of Redick for three, for example, or failing to execute 2-on-1 possessions). A debilitating case of gastroenteritis and tendinitis sapped Joel Embiid to mortal status (though all fans will — and perhaps, should — remember was the whirring, game-sealing lay-in). More proof was provided to the thesis that length and speed is Tobias Harris’ kryptonite. And J.J. Redick was plagued by one of those ugly shooting nights that periodically occur when defenses take to running him off-the-line.
Utilizing tactical and elegant footwork, Butler proved why he’s among basketball’s elite.
Play 1: Crossers and Gatherers
Before putting Pascal Siakam on wheels, Jimmy Butler executed an important read: Toronto wasn’t set in their half-court defense.
Even with branches hanging from his oak tree of a body, Kawhi couldn’t keep up with Butler. Gasol and Lowry stood no chance. Both helpside defenders staggered one-foot in the lane, drawn to their opponents’ respective corner three-point prowess. (Ennis is particularly deadly in the playoffs on a small sample size from the right corner shooting 60% on 0.8 attempts. Harris is 40% on 0.7 attempts from the left-corner).
Siakam made a mistake. Instead of defending the rim, he tried to stop Butler at the logo. And Butler made him pay. The right-to-left crossover Butler forces Siakam to “swing step,” which refers to a pivoting of your back foot, naturally changing your influence foot. Basically, the defender compensates downhill speed with balance. In other words, Siakam doesn’t want to fall face-first, so he moves more carefully and slower. The next move, therefore, the defender has a near-zero chance at stopping him without committing a foul.
Siakam is long, so recovering isn’t the problem. The problem is what comes next: the gather step. Butler uses the tiny-wrinkle in the rule-book enacted in 2013 to his advantage in the same manner as do other elite shooting guards — namely, Bradley Beal, James Harden, and Donovan Mitchell.
By stretching beyond Lowry’s half-hearted stunt, Butler avoids Gasol, the former DPOY. He hangs in the air, waits for Siakam to come down, and falls-away off his weak-foot without ceding interior position. There is no solution to stopping this:
The in-between: Now you see me, now you don’t
Sifting through film, like their peers, elite defenders act accordingly. But in the game, they instinctively adjust their tactics based on real-time moves and actions. Artificial intelligence, of sorts. Sharpied on every smart basketball person’s all-defensive team, Pascal Siakam is AI.
Yet even Siakam couldn’t calculate what Butler had coming. After an 8-0 Toronto run, Siakam played it safe. He didn’t stop at the logo, he planted his flag below the three-point line. He tried tugging Green on the back of the jersey, but by that time, it was too late. Butler crossed over, gathered, and scored.
Against Siakam, Butler recorded 12 points on 5/5 shooting and 17 possessions. Butler knows he can beat Siakam, but as mentioned, Siakam has the length to catch up. Butler has to problem-solve.
Play 3: The weak-footed Euro-step
The euro-step is a lateral misdirection relatively new to the NBA, yet taught at every level of basketball today. Popularized by Manu Ginobili, today’s MVP candidates — Harden and Giannis — have it in their repertoire. Despite the travel-truthers, they do it justice.
Even many skilled players don’t perform the euro-step right. They do travel. Both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid tried it last game at half-speed and took an extra step. They batter into defenders, sending possessions the other way.
Jimmy Butler does it right with added flair.
On the screen grab below, Butler entrusts his euro-step over many (possibly fruitful) options. Redick likely pops open in the opposite corner. Scooting behind Simmons and finding Harris on the opposite wing seems plausible. Not to mention, pulling it out and resetting the offense, considering the shot-clock (19 seconds!) and the lack of numbers (2-on-3!). Simmons would have an open lane to cut to the rim, too.
Nevertheless, Butler attacks. And Siakam is prepared. This is deja vu: he expects Butler to gather-step through the middle.
Instead, Butler plants his left-foot and drives his right-foot to the rim. Siakam is thrown off like he was at half-court in the previous play. This time, though, both his feet rest in the restricted circle. He can’t take a charge and isn’t in good enough position to make an honest attempt at swatting Butler. The AI is compromised.
This point can’t be understated: shifting all your power to your weak-foot at full-speed is extremely difficult. Learning to jump off one-foot and then switching to the other, especially with the euro-step — which has a jarring deceleration and acceleration, intense shock absorption, and a lateral shift of direction — creates an awkward feeling.
Butler gets creative with it, using his footwork in all situations. In game 2, Butler drew fouls by swinging his legs forward during three-point attempts. He found Embiid popping or rolling through pick-and-roll using rhythmic bounce. He kept the defender on his hip while he pulled up from mid-range. Not to mention, his defense was better in game 2 than Game 1, especially in close-outs and help-side rotations.
With Game 3 on Thursday, Butler will have the much-needed rest to keep up his newfound pace. And if Embiid is out or ailing, the Sixers may even need “James” Butler in the clutch yet again.