There is a difference between regular season Jimmy Butler, and playoff Jimmy Butler.
There were questions that creeped up as the season wore on concerning whether or not Butler was being too deferential. Where was the aggressive, leave it all out on the floor player that the 76ers had traded for?
Through these playoffs, and in demonstrative fashion on Thursday night, Butler has proved that he has another level.
“I’m noticing a difference,” Joel Embiid said after the Sixers 116-95 Game 3 win. “Playoff Jimmy is a different player.”
Butler finished the night with 22 points, nine rebounds, nine assists, three steals, and a block on Thursday as the Sixers took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. That comes following a 30 point outing in Toronto on Monday.
The initial reaction when the 76ers made the trade for Butler in early November was one of promise, draped in trepidation. Butler has made a name for himself on the court by being a hard worker, playing exceptional defense, and coming through big in clutch moments.
Butler has also made a name for himself off the court as being a difficult person to work with. His disagreements and habit of calling out teammates have been well documented and things in Minnesota ended on a sour note.
That combined reputation came to Philadelphia with no promise that Butler would stick around after he becomes a free agent this summer, and it cost the Sixers Robert Covington and Dario Saric, players beloved by the Sixers faithful.
Once in Philadelphia there was the rumored film session where Butler and Brett Brown got into an argument, one that was disputed by both parties as being anything more than normal player-coach interaction. Sandwiched between standout performances and buzzer beating shots, there was worry about Butler being happy with how he was being utilized.
Then weeks went by with Butler passing up open shots and attacking the basket less and it wasn’t clear what was going to happen once the playoffs rolled around. Even Butlers defensive intensity was questioned as the season neared an end.
For all the hemming and hawing and worry surrounding him, Butler has shown that no matter what kind of difficulties his personality presents, and no matter what he looks like in the regular season, it’s what he can do in the playoffs that is valuable.
“Jimmy’s focus, I think his leadership, attention to detail with the pieces, the integral pieces that we’re trying to get done defensively are heightened,” Brown said. “We need it all, we need it all. It’s appreciated and respected.”
Butler himself does not want to admit that there is a difference, that there is a switch that he flips once the postseason starts.
“I just do what my teammates and my coaches need for me to do,” he said. “I try to find the line and keep everybody happy to tell you the truth.”
The truth is that having a guy on the team that sprints in transition even when he can’t catch the man in the open floor, who is constantly talking on defense, and who will block a three-point attempt even when the Sixers are up by 18 points in the fourth quarter is what keeps his team and coach happy.
It’s those kinds of plays that will be in the minds of the Sixers front office when they offer him a huge contract this summer, hoping that he’ll accept.
It’s possible that Butler’s deference and willingness to let up during the regular season has actually added to the way his teammates feel about him. While they are all rounding into form as the postseason approaches, and Butler knows he can turn it on when the playoff lights come on, it gives everyone a chance to have their night and to feel confident.
“It doesn’t matter, both playoff Jimmy and regular season Jimmy, both guys are the type of guys you want on a team,” Embiid said.
Even with Embiid playing out of his mind on Thursday, and with contributions from up and down the roster, there’s no way around the fact that the Sixers have needed him in order to be competitive against the Raptors, and they’re going to need him from here on out.