PHILADELPHIA – Here are three observations from the Philadelphia 76ers hard fought 113-107 victory over the Utah Jazz.
1. Jimmy Butler and the (former) rookies
Jimmy Butler’s presence hovered over everything that transpired at the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night. This was true entering the arena, and in the aftermath of Philadelphia’s win, it was even more pronounced.
With Joel Embiid in foul trouble for much of the night, and Ben Simmons unable to impose his dominance, Butler was left to carry the Sixers to their eighth consecutive home victory. He did just that. In the process, he validated Philadelphia’s belief that he can be the missing piece to their championship puzzle.
“That’s a fantastic debut for him,” Brett Brown said of Butler postgame. “He was our bell ringer tonight and just really validates the excitement we all have getting him in the program.”
Butler finished with 28 points and seven assists in his first home game for the franchise. He was the leading man on this night, from start to finish. That was quite the accomplishment, too, given the myriad of narratives weaving through a thoroughly entertaining 48 minutes of basketball.
A rookie of the year rematch between Donovan Mitchell and Simmons would have been a worthy headline act on any other evening.
Mitchell launched 35 shots from the field to record his 31 points. While these results won’t appease the most analytical of minds, he was the entire solar system for Utah’s offence. He threatened to overturn an early 18-point deficit and steal victory for Quin Snyder’s men. Mitchell got the Jazz a fourth quarter lead, before Simmons and Embiid provided the finishing kick needed to supplement Butler’s performance.
Simmons’ finest moments came in the game’s final minute. With scores tied, he drove hard through the paint and finished in traffic for what would prove to be the match-winning basket.
Forty seconds later, he found Butler from an inbounds pass and that was it, the game was over. Philadelphia had their first victory of the Butler era.
This last play was instructive for Simmons. He has been lavish in his praise for Butler, since the four-time All-Star was acquired. Simmons has made special attention of pointing out Butler’s sublime basketball intellect. Tonight, we got a glimpse into how the pair can flourish.
“The inbounds play where I threw it to him, that was going to happen before I even threw it," Simmons explained. "Just because I looked at him.
“Some guys you can just look at and you already know what’s going to happen before it happens.”
Simmons finished with 10 points, eight rebounds, eight assists in 36 minutes.
2. Childhood dreams
Simmons and Dante Exum grew up with a common dream: to play in the NBA. Exum realised his in 2014, and Simmons his last October, but tonight presented an opportunity for the pair to share an NBA court for the first time.
On a snowy Philadelphian evening, these two Melbournian sporting prodigies finally hit the hardwood together.
“He said to me at one point ‘man, we dreamed about this since we were 12,’”Exum said postgame. “That’s the thing. It’s been a dream of ours.”
The pair would have realised their combined vision much earlier, had it not been for a series of ailments that have plagued their brief NBA careers. For Simmons, a broken fifth metatarsal bone in his right foot robbed him of his first season in the NBA system. Simmons, of course, recovered to start the 2017 NBA season, but Exum was sidelined with a separated shoulder when the Sixers and Jazz faced off twice last November.
While rotten luck may have delayed tonight’s showdown, it only served to make the moment even sweeter.
“I’m just glad both of us are healthy and we are doing what we love,” Exum said. “I couldn’t ask for more than that.”
Exum’s performance was improved over what has become his standard this season. He finished with seven points and four assists in 18 minutes of action. More than any tangible measurement, the truly promising aspect of Exum’s game was the intent at which he attacked the basket.
In Utah’s disastrous defeat to Dallas on Wednesday, Exum’s passive tendencies came to the surface. He wasn’t the sole offender, as the entire Jazz roster failed on that night, but Exum was certainly part of the problem. Not tonight, as the Australian helped fuel a Jazz resurgence. He did it by sticking to his strengths.
“That’s my game,’ Exum said postgame, on getting into the paint with his dribble. “It’s what I can do."
All seven of Exum’s attempts came from the paint, and he was able to get to the rim on six of them. Philadelphia’s second unit was ill-equipped to deal with his athletic gifts. Plays like this one, where Exum put his head down and trusted in his talents, still represent his strength within the NBA arena.
“They were opening up for me tonight," Exum said. "That’s something I need to continue doing. I made some of those right reads tonight.”
3. Everything else from the Australian corner
Beyond Simmons and Exum living out their fairy-tale, there were many Australian angles at play tonight in Philadelphia. Here are six observations from the Aussie takeover:
Joe Ingles finished with 14 points, two rebounds and two assists in 33 minutes of action for the Jazz. His night was highlighted with this filthy step back three in the face of Amir Johnson.
Ingles was visibly upset after Simmons found Butler on the decisive inbounds play. He wanted Rudy Gobert to shade over and help on a slashing Butler, but the help didn’t arrive. Ingles was apoplectic as the Jazz headed into their timeout.
Brown spoke pre-game about his pride at seeing Ingles grow into the player he now is. In a humorous moment, Brown revealed that his early nickname for Ingles was “Sloppy Joe,” due to his relaxed physique.
The former Boomers coached also admitted his age, seeing how he coached in the NBL when Dave Simmons (Ben’s father) and Cecil Exum (Dante’s father) played in the league.
At Jazz shootaround before the game, Mitchell was asked to explain his thoughts on the rookie of the year battle.
“I think it picked up towards the end of the year. The sweatshirt took off and created a little debacle. It was fun. I had a good time last year and he had a great season.
“Last year is last year; it’s in the past. You can’t really live off of last year. We are both here to try and prove something new. That’s all I’m worried about."
Mitchell added that he and Simmons don’t communicate away from the basketball court – he joked that was Exum’s role on the Jazz – but was quick to point out what makes Simmons a special talent.
“He is great at attacking. We’ve got to be able to stay home. He likes to find shooters. That’s one of his strengths. If we can just limit that I think we will be in good shape."