Celtics & 76ers: The Future of the League's Oldest Rivalry

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By way of the Philadelphia 76ers, the Boston Celtics officially advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals on Wednesday, May 9. There, they’ll encounter LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers; whatever their fate, the C’s have already co-written the next chapter of an NBA epic. Boston and Philly, who flaunt a chronicle spanning decades, have developed into the contemporary Eastern Conference rivals of the future. These two teams and cities have much to look forward to, and the NBA is better for it.


A Rich History

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The Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers lay claim to one of the richest modern sports rivalries, but the C’s enjoy an even deeper history with their Atlantic Division neighbors to the southwest. The cinematic legend of the 76ers and the Celtics stars Hall of Famers, barrier-breakers, champions, and some of the greatest basketball players of all time.
Dating back to 1954, when the 76ers were incarnated as the Syracuse Nationals, these two storied franchises have now met in the postseason 20 times. Those Nationals, featuring Earl Lloyd, the first black man to ever play an NBA game, defeated the Celtics in three straight postseason series, right up until 1956–Bill Russell’s draft year. With the addition of Russell and K.C. Jones, the Celtics avenged those losses and defeated the Nationals in three subsequent playoff meetings through 1961.

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The Nationals were sold and moved to Philadelphia in 1963, where they’d adopt the 76ers moniker. Two years later, Philadelphia traded for Wilt Chamberlain, and the Sixers officially embarked on a mission to end the NBA’s longest-ever dynasty. The Celtics, who’d won six straight NBA titles to that point, would continue winning at the highest level until 1967. By then, Russell–that season’s MVP runner-up to Chamberlain–had replaced Red Auerbach as the Celtics’ head coach, becoming the first black head coach in the history of professional sports.
The Sixers defeated the Celtics 4-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals that year, and proceeded to knock out the San Francisco Warriors en route to the championship. But beating Boston was, in itself, a champion’s achievement–for the first time in nine years, a non-Celtics team could enjoy the spoils of victory. It was only fitting that it was the 76ers, who’d been hot on Boston’s heels for more than a decade, coming up triumphant.

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The Celtics would avenge their loss and defeat the 76ers in 1968 and 1969, completing their 11-titles-in-13 years conquest, ultimately pushing Chamberlain to the Lakers. The teams would not meet again until 1977. That year marked Julius Erving’s first NBA season, and he polished it off by eliminating the Celtics from the Eastern Conference Semifinals in a classic seven-gamer before falling to Portland in the Finals.
The teams faced off three years later in Larry Bird’s rookie season; the Sixers nabbed the conference title that year, but fell in the 1980 Finals to 21-year-old Magic Johnson. Into the early ’80s, Maurice Cheeks, Moses Malone, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish entered the fray of the rivalry–even Charles Barkley made a cameo as a rookie, and contributed to the saga fittingly when he may or may not have held back Larry Legend so Dr. J could clock him in a November 1984 meeting. Philly and Boston exchanged blows in the Conference Finals in ’81, ’82, and ’85, but once the Celtics pulled out a 4-1 performance in 1985, this seminal clash of titans was put on hold until after the turn of the century.

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Allen Iverson and Paul Pierce have places in this history too. Their millennial manifestations of the 76ers and Celtics faced off in a competitive first-round series in 2002, from which the Celtics emerged victorious. Boston stormed into the Conference Finals that year where they ultimately fell to the New Jersey Nets.
Ten years later, a young Sixers squad headlined by Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday, and Evan Turner took on Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Rajon Rondo in the 2012 Conference Semifinals. The 8-seed 76ers, coming off a massive upset of the 1-seed Bulls (featuring Derrick Rose’s inaugural ACL tear), pushed the 4-seed Celtics to seven games before a classic TD Garden elimination game. The Celtics advanced to the Conference Finals, where they fell to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and the Miami Heat. This marked the Sixers’ final competitive season before the advent of The Process.


A New Era

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Today, the 76ers and the Celtics are positioned to dominate the Eastern Conference well into the 2020s. While Boston has the upper hand today, it behooves us to remember that Philadelphia only just closed out its first full season featuring generational talents Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. After four years of painful but strategic losing, the Sixers enjoyed their winningest season since 2000-01–when Larry Brown was Coach of the Year, Dikembe Mutombo was Defensive Player of the Year, and Iverson was the MVP who carried the team to an NBA Finals appearance.

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Embiid is turning into one of the most dominant, unguardable superstars the league has seen since Shaq. Simmons has put together one of the most remarkable, complete (albeit redshirted) rookie campaigns since LeBron. This tandem is equal parts promising and terrifying: they have big-time free agents on alert, and the rest of the league on notice. But they also have a lot to work on. This isn’t controversial–they’re 24 and 21 years old, and are still learning how to win after an exhausting four combined years of watching the Sixers lose from the sideline.


Nearly being swept by the Celtics in the Semifinals was a blessing in disguise for Philly. Between botched late-game execution in Games 2, 3, and 5 and Simmons hitting the fabled rookie wall, we were reminded that these budding superstars are still students of the game who happen to be playing advanced placement basketball. They may have stumbled through their final exams, but Simmons and Embiid haven’t truly failed at anything.
While this year ended on a relatively disappointing note, the Sixers’ season as a whole was monumental. Embiid became the team’s first All-Star since Holiday in 2013, and Simmons will likely be crowned Rookie of the Year. The duo and the crew around them–including a do-it-all, under-the-radar talent like Dario Šarić, dependable role players in Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell, and ballasting vets in Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova, J.J. Redick, and Amir Johnson–squashed expectations. Leading the Sixers to 52 wins and the third seed in the East, Embiid and Simmons made an absolute mockery of preseason projections that had them missing the playoffs entirely.

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Philadelphia carried a monstrous 16-game winning streak into the 2018 Playoffs. Combine this with their 4-1 defeat of the Miami Heat in the first round, and the narrative opened up: could The Process be headed to the NBA Finals already? This distracted hypothesis and others like it neglected to account not just for LeBron James, but for the miracle workers in Boston too. The Celtics have been engaged in a process of their own–one dramatically less blatant, but nevertheless effective.

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The Celtics are about to compete in their second consecutive Eastern Conference Finals, but with an almost entirely different team from their 2017 campaign. Save Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown, the remainder of the roster was flipped and dipped in youth to make room for marquee offseason acquisitions Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. If you can hardly remember Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Jae Crowder, credit Danny Ainge–but also pray that the GM of your favorite team refuses to do business with him.

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With Irving and Hayward out with season-ending injuries, the young Celtics have done outstanding work to advance as far as they have this postseason. Atoning for an up-and-down first-round series against Milwaukee, Jayson Tatum went on a scoring tear against Philly, one unlike any Celtics rookie has embarked on since Bird. Two-way rising star Brown has put up multiple 30-point games and is fighting through a lingering hamstring injury to do his part and keep his team alive. Rozier, in addition to his post as the NBA’s resident meme lord, has truly become New England’s darling by filling Kyrie’s shoes, socks, shorts, and everything else. As for Smart? After more than a month of inaction due to injury, the defensive maniac revered as the team’s heart and soul returned to play in Game 5 of the first round; it wouldn’t be an overstatement to credit Marcus with (at least partially) swinging that series in Boston’s favor when the chips were down. Anchored by Al Horford, these guys–all aged 24 or under–are stunning the league, making themselves household names, and rearranging the NBA hierarchy all at once.

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Tatum, Brown, Rozier, and Smart, Boston’s four first-round picks over the last four years, have had to grow up quickly. High draft picks chosen by winning teams take on vastly different responsibilities than those who end up in, say, Phoenix or Orlando. The pressure of performing well and contributing to champion-style culture is high and bordering on extra for these baby Celtics. With the team’s makeup in almost constant flux throughout 2017-18, they’ve handled the demand incredibly well and have peaked at the perfect moment.


Embiid and Rozier may not be at Bird vs. Erving level quite yet, but the games within the game made this Semifinals the most watchable five-game series in ages.


What’s Next?

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Philly and Boston are in positions of enormous privilege. Without naming names, the Sixers have the cap room flexibility to attract any one of several superstar free agents this summer. The Celtics will regain two established All-Stars in Irving and Hayward, and they still have some finessed future draft picks to boot. By the time these teams meet again, they could look massively different, yet be capable of so much more than the glimpses we feasted on this May.

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There is an immediacy of unanswered questions for these teams. The fate of Markelle Fultz, Philly’s No. 1 pick of the 2017 Draft, remains a mystery. The irony of Jayson Tatum essentially having been traded for Fultz could have years-long ramifications if Markelle ultimately doesn’t fit with Embiid and Simmons. Meanwhile, how will Brad Stevens reconcile replacing Tatum with Hayward and Rozier with Irving? Scary Terry hasn’t just made a name for himself this past month–he’s made bank. When he hits free agency in 2019, a handful of GMs will be happy to send him a Brink’s truck, but Danny Ainge may not be one of them.
Whatever the future holds, it’ll be worth it. Pick your bandwagon now.


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