The Celtics will get their first look at a revamped Philadelphia 76ers squad on Christmas Day, featuring All-Star Jimmy Butler. The Sixers sit 2.5 games ahead of Boston in a tight race at the top of the Eastern Conference, largely thanks to the boost Butler has produced upon his arrival via trade.
In 17 games, the swingman has posted some of the best numbers of his eight NBA seasons, with career-highs in FG percentage (49%), 3-pt percentage (39%) and free throw percentage (87%), all of which has propelled the Sixers into a top-10 NBA offense. He’s been a strong second fiddle to Joel Embiid on most nights, while giving the Sixers the shot creator they have previously lacked in late-game situations, a weakness that haunted Philly against the Celtics last postseason. Butler’s athleticism and ball handling have opened the door for more uptempo play under Brett Brown’s system as well.
“Unbelievable pace that they play with,” Kyrie Irving said. “Ben [Simmons], I think plays the one now, so the spacing that they have is a lot different. Obviously, not having Covington and Saric. So we just gotta play them tough and they have a great toughness and grit about them with Jimmy Butler out there. So I’m looking forward to the challenge. Any time we get the chance to go up against the best of the best, we’re considered the best of the best and I’m up for it and I know my teammates will be up for it as well.”
The presence of Butler on one of Boston’s chief rivals for the foreseeable future remains a fascinating twist of fate. The Celtics had ample opportunity to acquire the 29-year-old, dating back all the way to the 2011 NBA Draft when they mistakenly took JaJuan Johnson (out of the league in two seasons) at No. 27 (via trade with Brooklyn) over Butler who fell to Chicago at No. 30.
After Butler broke out with Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls, the Celtics were in on talks for the swingman at the trade deadline in 2016 and on draft night (C’s turned down asking price of No. 3 overall pick, which turned into Jaylen Brown) as well before he was ultimately dealt to the Timberwolves. The Celtics had their sights set on (in their opinion) better names like Kyrie Irving and Paul George at the time, which kept them from using the assets needed to fulfill Bulls’ asking price.
While Butler was readily available to the rest of the league yet again this fall after asking out of Minnesota, the Celtics, per league sources,