OKLAHOMA CITY -- Jimmy Butler's magnanimous presence in the locker room is unmistakable. He walks around singing loudly along to songs, taking his personal portable speaker to the showers and barely missing a lyric while he courts a lighthearted debate with Mike Scott and Jonathon Simmons -- a debate drowned out by Butler's country music.
There has been a lot written, said and assumed about how Butler fits with the Philadelphia 76ers and what happens beyond this season, but as coach Brett Brown said after their 108-104 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Butler was the one trying to bring everything together.
"There was an unselfishness," Brown said. "I think that connects the dots to so many things. It's a very unselfish group, and I thought Jimmy Butler tonight, especially, went way out of his way to live by that standard we've set. He was our bell ringer tonight."
The Process methodically, incrementally, painstakingly built the 76ers, but this group has sort of been assembled on the fly this season. Butler's addition was the first significant shake-up, but following that with adding Tobias Harris right before the trade deadline is the big swing. And without Joel Embiid, the Sixers leaned on Butler's playmaking (20 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists) and Harris' scoring (32 points on 11-of-19 shooting). After the Thunder tied the game 93-93 with with 4 minutes, 40 seconds left, Harris went on an 8-0 run by himself as the Sixers took control.
"Take the shots you're comfortable making, and he made 'em," Butler said of Harris. "We want him to continue to be that player for us, and he's going to win us a lot of games."
The win broke a 19-game losing streak to the Thunder. It was the Sixers' first win against OKC since Nov. 15, 2008, and only the second ever against the team since it relocated to Oklahoma City. Looking around the Sixers' locker room, the longest tenured player is T.J. McConnell, but he has been with the team since only 2015, part of seven of those losses. How different were things on that November day in 2008? The teams took 21 3-pointers -- combined.
There's only one player that has been part of all 19 -- Russell Westbrook -- and he was aware of the streak. With plenty of history with the Sixers, he wasn't much interested in discussing it, but the last time OKC lost to Philly, he came off the bench and scored 13 points. And on the night the run ended, he put up his 25th triple-double of the season -- 23-11-11.
Without Embiid and fellow All-Star Paul George playing, some of the juice was taken out of the matchup. Despite that, the losing streak was something the Sixers were still aware of. Ben Simmons said it wasn't extra motivation though, because so much of that losing streak was tied to a very different time in Sixers basketball. The mindset is different now; the roster has been completely turned over.
"I think everyone in here wants to win, so nobody really looks at it," Simmons said. "When you lose, you know you want to get wins, and it just gets to the point where no one wants to be comfortable with losing, and that's how a few years ago obviously the team was in a situation where we were losing a lot of games, but now you have a lot of guys that have winning mentalities and want to be a part of a winning program, and you just go off habits like that."
Butler and Harris are the walking examples of it. The Sixers are figuring it out as they go -- "cramming for an exam," as Brown put it -- as they try to get a handle on who they are with the postseason nearing. Embiid will be back soon, though he's out for Saturday's game against the Golden State Warriors, Brown said. But playing without him gives the Sixers an opportunity to smooth the edges. Brown is hammering home an unselfish mindset, one that involves all the weapons the Sixers have as much as possible.
"Yeah, we're jelling," Butler said. "It takes time, like I said early on when we made that trade, I think we're doing a great job with the chemistry."
It can sometimes be hard to tell where the Sixers stand with that, but Butler was instrumental on Thursday in keeping the team together. He had the ball in his hands plenty, working to keep Harris scoring and picking his spots. Maybe it's not coincidental that Embiid was out, but Philadelphia's first five is about as talented as any starting unit in the league. And what's going to tap into that potential is, as Brown said, connecting the dots.