Let’s be clear about what we’ve seen over the last week. The Sixers are the better basketball team in this Eastern Conference semifinals series. In fact, at times, the difference between them and the Heat has looked downright startling.

The official count says things are all tied up at two games apiece as it heads back to Miami for Game 5 on Tuesday, but the Sixers’ dominance in Games 3 and 4 was so thorough that you can’t help but wonder whether the series would already be over had Joel Embiid been on the court from the start.

That’s a remarkable thing to say given the way the circumstances looked at the start of the series. But two big variables have broken in the Sixers’ favor. The first, obviously, is Embiid. In the aftermath of the Sixers’ series-tying 116-108 win at the Wells Fargo Center on Sunday night, somebody asked James Harden how he and his teammates were able to maintain their composure after they opened up the series with back-to-back losses. Harden laughed and looked at the guy sitting next to him. That guy was Embiid. Point taken.

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The second big variable is a hamstring injury that has turned Heat guard Kyle Lowry into a near total non-factor. There’s a reason why Miami signed the North Philly native to a three-year, $85 million deal this offseason. But in the two games since his return, Lowry has given the Heat next to nothing on the offensive end of the court. He’s 3-for-14 from the field and 0-for-8 from three-point range, including six misses from deep in Game 4.

The Embiid-Lowry dynamic leaves the Sixers in the driver’s seat, despite the series being tied and the Heat maintaining home-court advantage. That’s a good place to be, especially when you consider that Embiid still has plenty of rust to knock off himself on the offensive end of the court. In two games since returning from the orbital fracture and concussion he suffered in Game 6 in Toronto, Embiid has attempted just 25 shots from the field, his lowest two-game total since the first week of the regular season. That’s an almost unprecedented low for Embiid 2.0. The last time he attempted fewer than 14 shots in back-to-back games in which he logged at least 30 minutes was 2019: in Games 4 and 5 of the Sixers’ Eastern Conference semifinal loss to Toronto.

That Raptors series from three years ago is a fitting mile marker as we turn our attention to the Sixers’ biggest obstacle standing between them and their first conference finals berth of the Embiid era. While their two wins in Philly this weekend marked a decisive turn in the trajectory of this series, they also left the Sixers grappling with a couple of vintage Jimmy Butler performances that looked a lot like the ones that nearly carried them to victory over Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors in 2019. Right now, the Heat’s road map to victory starts and ends with Mr. Buckets.

“He was tough,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said after Butler erupted for 40 points in Game 4. “I’ve got to watch film, but he frustrated me tonight. He made everything. What he did tonight is he went left a lot. That’s something that in the past he’s really not done. So we’re going to have to figure that one out. He was tough. He scored on everyone. It didn’t matter who it was.”

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That’s mildly concerning, at the very least. Butler’s effort on Sunday was the one thing that kept the Heat hanging around as well as they did. Credit the Sixers that they weathered the storm well enough that the outcome never felt in serious danger. The question is whether that sense of comfort was mostly a product of the Sixers hitting their shots. If Harden goes 3-for-10 instead of 6-for-10 from three-point range, things could have turned out a lot differently. Same goes for the Sixers’ 99-79 win in Game 3, when Butler scored 33. If Danny Green and Tyrese Maxey combine to go 6-for-15 instead of 12-for-15, who knows?

Granted, that’s a hell of a what-if. But it’s a fair one. In the Sixers’ two wins in Philly, Miami combined to shoot just 14-of-65 from three-point range. Take away Butler’s 25-for-42 from the field, and the Heat combined to shoot an absurd 40-for-112. That’s less than 36%. From the entire field. It’s a make-or-miss league, and it’s hard to predict which team will make and which team will miss on any given night. In other words, if the Sixers can’t figure out a way to slow down Butler, and the rest of the Heat figure out a way to knock down their shots at even a passable rate, the final score could look a lot different.

Therein lies the primary plot line for the rest of this series. If what we’ve seen from Embiid on the offensive end is what the Sixers are going to continue to get, these last three games are going to come down to the abilities of Butler and Harden to control the halfcourt flow, and the percentage at which the other guys knock down their open looks. Butler’s patience and strength off the dribble are difficult things to contend with. Butler is like Embiid in the sense that there aren’t any options for stopping him that don’t involve opening up options elsewhere on the court.

“We’ve got to do a better job of showing a crowd so he doesn’t get it as easy as he’s been able to,” Embiid said after Game 4. “We’ll be better. I’ll be better.”

» READ MORE: James Harden’s fourth-quarter outburst leads Sixers to 116-108 victory to even series against Heat

Embiid has been good enough to single-handedly turn the tide of the series. And the Sixers can take comfort in knowing that their MVP should only get more comfortable on the offensive end.

“We haven’t seen the best of Joel in this series yet,” River said.

The smart money is on the Sixers. But Butler is a problem that will not quietly go away.