There were plenty of good subplots to the latest collision between the 76ers (17-9) and Toronto Raptors (21-5), not the least of which was that the Atlantic Division foes entered the evening with the top-two win totals in the NBA.
But front and center Wednesday was the wrinkle of Jimmy Butler being injected into the rivalry, and him getting his first opportunity to face good friend Kawhi Leonard since both were traded.
On an individual level, each All-Star stood out with Butler posting a season- and game-high 38 points (15-27 fg, 4-7 3fg, 4-4 3fg) and 10 rebounds, and Leonard a team-best 36 points and nine boards.
It was Toronto, however, that emerged from Scotiabank Arena with a 113-102 victory. That, not personal production, was all that was on Butler’s mind.
Butler’s double-double was his second of the season. Both have come with the Sixers.
“I don’t [care] how many points I scored, I want to win. We haven’t won here in so many years, but I think it’s a good test for us, though.”
When Butler buried a 3-pointer late in Wednesday’s first half to give the Sixers a 46-40 lead, the prospects of snapping a 12-game losing streak in the North seemed promising.
Leonard then proceeded to turn the tilt around, leading Toronto on a momentum-changing 13-0 run that gave the Raptors a 53-48 edge at the break.
Not only did the two-time Defensive Player of the Year use a vicious dunk to tie the game at 46-46, he came up with the steal that ultimately preceded Toronto’s first go-ahead basket of the night.
“He’s a great player,” Brett Brown said of Leonard, who he coached with the San Antonio Spurs.
Butler managed to carry his groove over into Wednesday’s third quarter (his 16 first-half points were a season high), and helped mount a spurt that briefly nudged the Sixers back in front, 74-73.
Leonard answered by scoring the next five points, helping put Toronto up, 78-77, going into the fourth period.
Joel Embiid (10 pts, 12 reb) opened the final frame with an authoritative slam, but Raptors backup big man Jonas Valanciunas (26 pts, 8 reb) emerged as the driving force behind a 13-2 run that tightened Toronto’s grip for good.