Like Raptors, 76ers taking advantage of rare contending window

Kawhi Leonard finished with 36 points 9 rebounds and 5 steals to lead the Raptors to a 113-102 win over the 76ers Wednesday.

TORONTO — "I’m here to win. That’s it."

That was the message Jimmy Butler delivered to his teammates on his first day as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers.

It’s been his de facto mantra throughout his career — and especially over the past three or so months as the spotlight has burned brighter on him than ever amid trade demands that sent him from the Minnesota Timberwolves to Philadelphia in mid-November.

So far Butler has been able to make good on his message. Since acquiring the 29-year-old on Nov. 12 Philadelphia entered Wednesday’s game with a 9-2 record, tied for first in the NBA in that span. 

Looking for his 10th win as a Sixer, Butler certainly did his part against the Raptors on Wednesday night in front of a star-studded crowd that included former Raptors Chris Bosh and Tracy McGrady, as the organization celebrated the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela. Butler finished with a game-high 38 points, shooting 4-7 from deep, while collecting 10 boards and registering a steal and a block for good measure — along with plenty of disruptive activity guarding the ball and interrupting passing lanes. 

In the process, he went toe-to-toe with Kawhi Leonard, who was as brilliant as he’s been in a Raptors jersey, scoring a team-high 36 points, including five three-pointers.

But on a night when co-stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons struggled mightily, Butler’s strong outing wasn’t enough to snap Philly’s now-13 game losing streak in Toronto, dropping a 113-102 game that got out of hand for the visiting team down the stretch.

Embiid, an MVP frontrunner and walking double-double, shot just 5-17 from the floor en route to 10 points and 12 rebounds and was a game-worst minus-23 in his 36 minutes of action. Simmons scored eight points, and although he managed 10 rebounds and 11 dimes, he also turned the ball over seven times — bringing his total to 18 turnovers in two games against the Raptors this season.  

Those two — the faces of "The Process" — remain the two critical pieces for Philadelphia’s future and its present, which, Wednesday’s loss aside, hasn’t looked this promising since Allen Iverson donned a 76ers jersey. 

The NBA hasn’t felt this unpredictable in years — especially in the East, where LeBron James ruled to the tune of eight consecutive Finals appearances.

With James in Los Angeles on a young team building for the (very near) future, Boston failing to come out of the gates as expected, the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors looking as vulnerable as ever — soon to be tasked with incorporating DeMarcus Cousins into the lineup — and the Houston Rockets falling off the face of the Earth through the first quarter of the season, the window to contend is more open than ever before.

But it can just as quickly be shut again, which puts some urgency into this season for teams like the Raptors and 76ers.

For the Raptors, that moment came in the summer when, tired of the same frustrating results, Masai Ujiri rolled the dice and traded for Leonard. Philadelphia’s opportunity, fueled by somewhat unexpected circumstances in Minnesota, came later but with the same hopes of immediately raising the team’s ceiling and chances to compete for a spot in the Finals.

The Sixers’ trade for Butler is a risky move — the four-time all-star is in the final year of his contract, although there have been rumblings that he intends to remain in Philadelphia for the long-term — but a necessary one to remain competitive with the likes of Toronto.

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The new setting also represents an opportunity for Butler who, after being the unequivocal leader and go-to star for the Timberwolves (and Chicago Bulls before that), faces a new challenge in finding his precise place on the 76ers.

"The city changes, the name on the front of the jersey changes, your teammates change," Butler told Sportsnet on Wednesday, "but all in all its basketball, man. You have to find where you fit in, and how you help your team win."

In Butler’s case that comes in many forms. Prior to the game Nick Nurse praised his ability to change games on the defensive end and Butler brings his, um, unique brand of leadership and accountability to a young team. 

The notorious Raptor-killer — over his career he’s averaged more points against Toronto than any team in the East — is ready to put the drama from his Minnesota exodus and questions surrounding his fiery, outspoken locker room dynamics behind him and turn his focus to the court.

"That’s the main thing — basketball is basketball, and all you want to do is win," Butler said. "That’s what I do this for. They want me to be a certain way a lot of the time. But I’m cool with who I am, man. As long as we win, I’m happy."

With Butler in the fold, the Sixers will be doing plenty of winning as the season progresses. But there are still issues the team will be hard-pressed to overcome before they can join the Raptors at the top of the conference. Their lack of size in the frontcourt, where Wilson Chandler starts alongside Embiid, was evident as the Raptors’ centres feasted on Philly on Wednesday.

They are still some pieces away from having a reliable bench unit, and that lack of depth was also problematic versus a Raptors team that doesn’t exactly share the concern. Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown went with a tight, eight-man rotation in the loss. 

And then there’s the never-quite-seen-before situation involving Markelle Fultz, the guard the Sixers traded up two spots to draft first overall in 2017 — passing on Jayson Tatum and Lonzo Ball in the process. Fultz’s shooting woes, which puts it mildly, were most recently chalked up to a shoulder injury that will keep him out of the lineup indefinitely. That’s opened up a starting spot for J.J. Redick —  where he should have been all along. Redick was a rare bright spot for Philly on Wednesday, scoring 25 points.

Embiid and Simmons won’t have many off-nights like this. And with some more tweaking to the roster and more time to incorporate their new star, one relatively ugly loss isn’t enough to count the Sixers out.

"Like all of us, they’re still growing," Nurse said of the new-look Sixers. "And they’re getting better."

After surveying the NBA landscape and swinging for the fences by bringing in Butler, they better hope so.

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