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Jimmy Butler got his first shot against his former Minnesota Timberwolves teammates since his tumultuous tenure with the squad ended in a November trade, and he helped lead the Philadelphia 76ers to a commanding 149-107 victory on Tuesday at Wells Fargo Center.
Philadelphia improved to 29-16 overall with its second straight win, while the Timberwolves fell to 21-23 after winning four of their previous five.
Butler’s showdown with the Timberwolves was the headline after an ugly exit that saw him yell at teammates and members of the front office at an infamous practice after he wasn’t immediately moved following his trade request. He responded with 19 points, four assists, three rebounds and two steals as one of seven Sixers in double figures.
Joel Embiid (31 points and 13 rebounds) and Ben Simmons (20 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists) each notched a double-double.
Derrick Rose scored his 10,000th career point on the other side and finished with 15 points and four assists, while Karl-Anthony Towns (13 points) and Andrew Wiggins (12 points) were a combined 8-of-24 from the field.
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Philadelphia wasted little time illustrating the gap between the two teams in Tuesday’s game, building an 83-58 lead at halftime and thoroughly dominating on the offensive side.
It was another step in the wrong direction for a Timberwolves team that hasn’t lived up to the high expectations they established when they formed a promising Big Three in Butler, Towns and Wiggins prior to the 2017-18 campaign.
Since then, the Timberwolves were the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference last season and lost to the Houston Rockets in the first round in five games. They then started 4-9 this season before trading Butler and entered play 11th in the Western Conference standings after firing head coach Tom Thibodeau earlier this month.
Throw in the ugly headlines in October when Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.com reported that Butler targeted Towns and Wiggins, among others, during a “vociferous and intense” practice before his ugly exit, and it’s clear the Timberwolves are nowhere near where they thought they’d be when they acquired Butler via trade from the Chicago Bulls.
It is a cautionary tale for the Sixers about what can happen if, like Wiggins and Towns, Simmons and Embiid don’t jell with Butler as a formidable Big Three in the Eastern Conference.
There have been some warning signs. Ramona Shelburne and Wojnarowski of ESPN.com reported earlier this month Butler “aggressively challenged coach Brett Brown on his role in the offense, complicating an already tenuous chemistry among the team’s Big Three hierarchy.”
Simmons then told reporters, “I think we were just too soft” following Friday’s loss to the Atlanta Hawks, but Butler told reporters, “I don’t like the word soft” when assessing what went wrong in the game.
It should be noted Brown said, “It was two people talking. … It doesn’t mean that something that is challenging is disrespectful,” when discussing the reported incident with Butler, per Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia.
What’s more, Butler told Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated, “Playing with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons is great.”
There haven’t been many questions on the court for a Philadelphia team that moved to 18-8 when Butler plays this season with Tuesday’s win. The team’s net rating when he was on the floor was 4.7 compared to 1.4 when he was off it entering play Tuesday, per NBA.com.
The 76ers are on the short list of contenders in the Eastern Conference with Butler serving as someone who can defend the opponent’s best playmaker while attacking the basket on the other end, Embiid as someone who can control the boards and score on the blocks and Simmons as someone who can create looks for himself and others with his penetration.
The question now is whether the Big Three can remain on the same page throughout the season, and Butler delved into the process in his discussion with Spears:
“I think as long as everybody’s honest with one another, which is what I’m telling everybody every day, like, if somebody has a problem with something or somebody, you just talk to them. You figure it out. And that’s the only way we’re going to win, when everybody is being transparent with one another and you know how everybody feels about every situation. You got to be able to talk. Communication is always going to be key.”
He acknowledged there will be “bumps in the road” but stressed how important it was they continue communicating.
Butler has a player option on his contract for 2019-20 and could become a free agent following this season. His potential departure would leave the 76ers without the four-time All-Star or Robert Covington and Dario Saric, who they traded to land him. Depth issues are a concern now and would become even more pressing in that situation.
Philadelphia is attempting to challenge for a championship while avoiding a situation where it is just Simmons, Embiid and spare parts in the near future—just like Minnesota is looking to avoid being Towns, Wiggins and spare parts as its struggles continue in the daunting Western Conference.