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Philadelphia Loves the Sixers Again—for Now

A Game 6 win over the Raptors evened a topsy-turvy series and brought Butler, Embiid, and Co. back in Philly’s good graces … at least until Sunday’s Game 7

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Philadelphia is a fickle city. In general, but especially with the Sixers. The last thing that happened tends to be what fans and local media obsess over, until the next thing happens and then they obsess over that and forget about the first thing. It’s tradition.

After the Sixers went up 2-1 in their second-round series against the Raptors, the general consensus was that they were a very good basketball team and would obviously make the Finals—and not just the Eastern Conference version, either. That was a week ago. Then the Sixers lost two in a row, including an abject disaster of a Game 5 in Toronto, and the general consensus was that the Sixers were super-bad at basketball and should probably just disband in the interest of civic sanity. The whole thing had me and Ringer colleague/fellow Philly head Michael Baumann debating whether we should wash away the disappointment with beer or bleach. We weren’t alone. Head coach Brett Brown was so exasperated by the last game in Toronto that he became an instant meme.

The mood tends to change pretty quickly, though—sometimes in the same day. The collective conversation about Ben Simmons was a good example of that. Everyone took heat in the run-up to Game 6 in Philly on Thursday, and rightly so. But aside from the head coach—who is always a target—it seemed like Simmons was absorbing more shots than just about anyone else. That might have been deserved. He did not play well to start the series, and he had his role changed from ball-dominant point guard to someone Brown said he was periodically deploying as a spacer to “try to free up shooters on the perimeter.” Or, to translate and put it more bluntly, as an offensive decoy. Not surprisingly, Simmons’s disappearing act did not go over well with the locals.

Thursday was an especially angry day on sports-talk radio, even by Philly standards. There were many first-time-longtimers who phoned to say that the Sixers should just unload Simmons for spare parts and be done with it. There were plenty of cracks about his shooting, and one caller to 94WIP hit him below the belt with a vicious “he’s not Philly.” Of all the provincial insults, that is considered the most devastating. Then he said the Sixers should trade Simmons and Brown to the Lakers for LeBron. I’m not sure about the salary-matching there, but I get the ire. Angry Philly is a Philly I understand; but I also understand Philly’s tendency to immediately reverse course on any given position. Those things are intertwined.

It was fitting that the guy so many people wanted to jettison in the morning is the same guy who got some of the loudest cheers later, on Thursday evening at Wells Fargo Center. Simmons had 21 points (on 9-for-13 shooting), eight rebounds, six assists, and, critically, no turnovers—by far his best game of the series—to help the Sixers force Game 7 in Toronto on Sunday. Simmons had more points in the first quarter of Game 6 than he had in all four quarters combined in the previous game, and he threw a gorgeous no-look pass that got everyone all hot and bothered. When he stepped to the line in the third quarter—a place that has not always been comfortable for him—the crowd clapped. It wasn’t even the sarcastic variety the city has perfected. It was the genuine, you-can-do-it kind of rah-rah stuff. Earnest support is not exactly what the natives are known for, but they went wild for Simmons several times in the game—especially and including when he threw down a follow-dunk on a Joel Embiid miss at a point in the proceedings when it seemed like the Raptors might have a chance of creeping back into things.

“He’s 22 years old,” Brown said of Simmons after Game 6. “His game as he grows his shot and tries to get a better command of his position and deals with the stage of the NBA playoffs—shame on us for thinking he’s going to be all day, everyday. Here he is and he’s just going to go knock it out of the park. It’s just not fair.”

Fair is not always Philly’s forte. As some noted Philadelphians pointed out on Twitter, the city has an ever-shifting relationship with Simmons. The same could be said about the attitude concerning the whole team, really. Opinions oscillate constantly. They have the best starting five east of Oakland; their starting five is overpriced and underproductive. Embiid is unstoppable; Embiid is Mr. Glass. Brown should be fired; bring back Brown. The Tobias Harris trade was exactly what they needed; they overpaid for Tobias. Let Jimmy Butler walk; give Jimmy the max.

Butler, like Simmons, tends to be loved one moment, loathed the next, with no in-between—all depending on what’s freshest in people’s minds. On Thursday, the Sixers got the version of Jimmy—don’t call him James—Butler that everyone around here digs. He had a team-high 25 points and, just as crucially, a game-high eight assists. He also picked Kawhi Leonard’s pocket right before the half and turned it into two easy points. In a game where Embiid still did not seem quite right or entirely himself—which I understand is an absurd thing to write when he was plus-40—Butler once more assumed the role Brown fondly and frequently refers to as “an adult in the room.” The coach dodged a late question after the game about Butler’s pending free agency and the kind of contract he might command—if Rajon Rondo is to be believed, someone other than the Sixers will be paying Butler this offseason—but credited Butler with playing well enough to keep the series, and the season, alive when it looked like they were all but buried.

It’s been a strange series that way. As Raptors coach Nick Nurse said, and I’m paraphrasing, both teams have looked alternately good and awful at various points. After the game, I asked Simmons about that, about the high highs and crushing lows that he and the Sixers have experienced against the Raptors. I wanted to know why he thought that was. Simmons’s reply basically amounted to “it’s the NBA.” Butler was asked pretty much the same thing and came up with “it’s a game of runs.” They were reflexive clichés, but I understand why they struggled to find an answer to that particular question. There is no easy answer.

“No boos,” Butler initially said in the postgame press conference. Then he and Embiid, who was sitting right next to him, corrected the record.

“Ah, they booed us a little bit, right?” Butler asked.

“They did,” Embiid said. “They did boo us.”

“We appreciate it,” Butler said. Everyone in the room shared a laugh with them.

It’s hard to blame anyone for not knowing whether to cheer or boo the Sixers from moment to moment. After 82 regular-season games, five first-round playoff games against the Nets and six more second-round games (and counting) against the Raptors, I’m not sure what to make of them, either. They are either a very good team that should be kept together at all costs this offseason or one that could be a second-round out for the second straight season. Maybe both. Your guess is as good as mine or anyone else’s, and that’s all we’d be doing—guessing. After all this, we still need one more game to figure it out. At least.