Joel Embiid was a Most Valuable Player candidate all season.
But Jimmy Butler has arguably been the best player in the Eastern Conference semifinals matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Butler scored 23 points and was able to rest down the stretch as the Miami Heat throttled the Sixers 120-85 in Game 5 on Tuesday.
Butler will now look to lead the Heat into the Eastern Conference finals with a victory at Philadelphia Thursday in Game 6.
Philadelphia is a slight favorite at most sportsbooks. That includes BetMGM, where Miami has drawn 52 percent of the spread bets and 54 percent of the handle as a 2.5-point underdog.
The action has been split on the 2.0-point line at DraftKings with the 76ers backed by only 34 percent of the bets but drawing 85 percent of the handle by mid-day Thursday.
The balanced Heat feature a number of stellar players including Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro.
Butler, however, is their unquestioned leader.
“He’s a great competitor at his core,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Butler. “When you get into a competition, he understands the full deal — that you have to do it on both ends. And he’s able to compete with a ferocity and an incredibly stable mind. That is really unique.
“When it gets the craziest is when he’s really locked in on making sure that it’s solid winning basketball for our team.”
After taking a 2-0 series lead, the Heat dropped both games in Philadelphia. While they still own homecourt advantage, the goal is to capture a much-needed road victory in a hostile environment.
“We’re capable of it, if we get some stops,” Butler said. “It’s a hard place to play.”
“It’s just one game,” Spoelstra added. “They know it. We know it.”
Miami’s Kyle Lowry will miss Game 6 due to a strained left hamstring. Lowry aggravated the hamstring during the first half of Game 4 and again in the second half. Lowry sat out Game 5.
The Sixers hope to avoid being eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals for the fourth time in the past five years.
Philadelphia hasn’t advanced to the Eastern Conference finals since 2001 when it defeated the Milwaukee Bucks in seven games.
If the Sixers are able to force a Game 7, they’ll need more production from Embiid, who had 17 points and only five rebounds in Game 5.
Embiid, who’s playing with a torn ligament in his right thumb and a face mask to protect an orbital fracture, looked tentative. He also appeared to tweak his back.
“This is a âlose-lose’ situation for me,” Embiid said. “If I don’t play, I probably get called soft and if I play and I play bad, they probably come up with a bunch of stuff that I guess he’s just not good enough. It’s all about staying — not get too high or too low and just going out there and really try to dig very deep and try to do whatever I can.”
Yet the reason the Sixers are now trailing is simple if you ask Embiid.
“Defense. We didn’t play defense,” he said. “We weren’t physical enough. We weren’t locked in from the beginning and they took advantage of it.”
The Sixers also didn’t receive an All-Star performance from James Harden, who shined in Game 4 with 31 points. In Game 5, Harden managed only 14 points in 37 minutes.
“They got 31 points in that first quarter. We were not engaged defensively and that slowed down our offense,” Harden said. “We have to be engaged. We got to be locked in.”
The Over on 207.0 points has seen lopsided action at DraftKings with 71 percent of the bets and 80 percent of the handle. The 207.5-point total at BetMGM has seen split action with 52 percent of the bets backing the Over while 82 percent of the handle has been placed on the Under.