Throughout the Sixers’ Eastern Conference semifinals series against Miami, which ended with a loss Thursday in Game 6, it was evident how much respect Joel Embiid still has for Jimmy Butler, who spent 55 games in Philadelphia before defecting as a free agent in 2019. Butler has made more than a few enemies over his 11 NBA seasons, alienating teammates with his confrontational stylings and high-maintenance locker-room persona. That was especially true in Philadelphia, though Embiid, for better or worse, was always able to match his intensity.
Many have wondered where the Sixers would be right now if they had committed, not to Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons or James Harden, but to Butler, who you could argue has been the most dominant player on any team this postseason, contributing on both ends of the floor while playing with a rare fearlessness, approaching every game like it could be his last. Butler and Embiid butted heads, both literally and figuratively, throughout the series (Embiid committed a flagrant foul on Butler in Sunday’s Game 4, which came days after the Heat All-Star chirped his Sixers counterpart for wearing a mask). But in the end, it’s all love between the former teammates, who, if things had gone differently, could still be playing together in Philadelphia.
“Still don’t know how we let [Butler] go,” lamented an unusually introspective Embiid after the game. “I wish I could have gone to battle with him still, but it is what it is.”
“My brother, who I picked for MVP, it feels good to beat him,” Butler said of Embiid, expressing his mutual admiration for the seven-footer.
“I got a lot of love for this city, lot of love for guys in that locker room.
Any time you get to beat a former team, it’s special.”
Sipping from a tall glass of truth serum, Embiid didn’t mince words Thursday night, praising Butler while conceding Harden may not be the difference-maker he was during his Houston heyday. Embiid left it all on the court for Philadelphia, playing through a torn thumb ligament and a fractured orbital bone (in layman’s terms, a broken face). Unfortunately, his teammates couldn’t rise to the occasion, begging the inevitable question, will the Sixers’ “Process Era” end without a championship? They’ll always be in the mix with Embiid, but it’s up to his supporting cast, as well as Coach Doc Rivers (though maybe not for long) and front-office guru Daryl Morey, to take the next step.