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In Sixers’ matchup with the Heat, Jimmy Butler and Nick Nurse are the X-factors, not Joel Embiid

Scouting Jimmy Butler in the regular season is like scouting the Wildwood boardwalk on a Tuesday in mid-December. You best not base your plans on either.

Nick Nurse knows this as well as anybody.

“I think you are foolish to sit there and look at any of his numbers from the regular season and see what you are gleaning from that,” Nurse said on Tuesday afternoon as the Sixers prepared to square off against Butler and the Miami Heat in a game that could shape the course of the Eastern Conference postseason. “So, yeah, we’ve done some historical study on what we expect to see. We’ve gone back and watched tapes from series from a couple years. We’re trying to put our best guess. But I think it’s safe to guess that he’s going to come out trying to kill us tomorrow.”

Nurse knows. Believe him, he knows. Back in 2019, Nurse had a front-row seat to Butler’s remarkable transformation from toxic underperformer to playoff god. An origin story is hard to forget when you bear personal witness.

A lot has happened since that Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Sixers and Raptors — enough to make us forget who Butler was before it went down.

» READ MORE: The Sixers are one of three real contenders in the East. Jimmy Butler is their biggest obstacle.

We forget that he was coming off a first-round series against the Nets in which he averaged 15.8 points per game.

We forget that he had missed 13 of the last 55 regular-season games, averaging 17.7 points with a .484 effective field goal percentage in the 42 games that he played. We forget that Ben Simmons outscored him during that stretch, averaging 17.8 points in his last 42 games of the 2018-19 regular season, along with 8.5 rebounds, 7.5 assists, and defense that would garner him all-league consideration.

We forget that the consensus opinion held that the Sixers were perfectly justified in preparing themselves to part ways with Butler after the season.

We forget all of that because of what we remember, because of what we saw out of Butler in that second-round series against the Raptors. Nurse saw it, too. And he struggled to stop it.

After a Game 1 stinker, Butler put the Sixers on his back and carried them to within a Game 7 buzzer-beater of knocking off the eventual NBA champs. He averaged 24 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.7 assists. He attempted 17.2 shots per game, including 5.2 from three, the latter number nearly double his regular-season output.

Five years later, Butler arrives in Philadelphia with three Eastern Conference finals and a couple of NBA Finals appearances under his belt. All of them have come in Miami, a place that was willing to offer him the max contract that the Sixers wouldn’t after that 2018-19 season. One of the conference finals appearances came in 2022, at the expense of the Sixers.

“Obviously, you and I know that he has a lot different numbers in the regular season versus the playoffs,” Nurse said. “His attempts, his time with the ball, his three-pointers … everything goes up with him. You can sum it up simply by saying he becomes a lot more aggressive scorer.”

» READ MORE: The Sixers are in the NBA’s play-in tournament for the first time. Here’s everything to know.

If only it were that simple. Aggression is something that any alpha male can summon, just as often a terminal stage of recklessness/stupidity as it is a framework for heroism. The trouble with Butler — from an opposing coach’s perspective, at least — is the way in which he channels that aggression.

The hardest part of shot-making is getting to a spot where you can shoot. Butler gets there better than anybody, more methodically than anybody. He combines best-in-class strength and body control with best-in-class determination. Combine those things with possession of the basketball, and it can be an impossible thing to defend, given the rules of engagement of the sport. The spot is his.

Players often talk about the speed of the game. You hear it from NFL quarterbacks, especially. What they are really referring to is the speed at which they are perceiving the game. The problem isn’t that everyone else is moving faster than they are. It is that they feel as if they are moving just as fast.

Butler is a fun player to watch because you can actually see him moving slower than everybody around him. The way in which he gets to his spots is methodical to the point of craftmanship.

“You have to be extremely aggressive with him,” Sixers guard Tyrese Maxey said. “Give him different looks, find ways to knock him off his game, knock him off balance, keep him away from his spots where he’s trying to get to. Make him uncomfortable. He’s a great player, so it’s going to difficult to do that. But we have the players, we have the personnel to do it.”

They also have the coach.

If Butler is the Heat’s X factor, then Nurse is the Sixers’. The easy narrative will focus on Joel Embiid, the recently recovered and possibly still-injured star who has openly rued Butler’s departure as he has tried and failed to burnish his own legacy with a signature playoff win. There aren’t enough words (at my current allotment) to unpack that framing in a thorough manner. Simply put, Embiid’s biggest postseason problem hasn’t been his health or a lack of cojones, but his coaches and roster managers.

He has both now, chief among them Nurse. There isn’t a better coach in the NBA today. The Sixers will be well-prepared, and they will be well-instructed, by a man who has already weathered Butler and lived to tell the tale.

» READ MORE: Nick Nurse ‘hopeful’ Joel Embiid will suit up for Play-In Tournament matchup against Miami Heat

“He’s going to come out and be super aggressive and try to get his team going,” Nurse said. “For anybody to think he is going to be like, ‘Oh, he’s sure creating a whole lot and trying to set up his teammates and not looking for his shot …’”

Nurse’s voice trailed off for a moment.

“That would be one way to look at it,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s the right way.”

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