The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers have been rivals for decades. However, in recent years, with the Sixers in full tank mode and the Celtics still looking to get over the hump that would take them from an average playoff team into a contender, the rivalry hasn’t been anything special.
That all changed last season. The Sixers had a great regular season led by “rookie” Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, who played his first season at full health. They were red-hot going into the playoffs and continued their dominance by easily beating the Miami Heat 4-1 in the first round.
The Celtics were in a much worse position. All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward were ruled out for the playoffs along with Daniel Theis, a solid bench piece for the Celtics. They barely made it to the 2nd round after squeaking by the Milwaukee Bucks in 7 games.
Ahead of the Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup between Boston and Philadelphia, pretty much every NBA analyst had the latter winning easily. They were proven wrong after the Celtics took care of the Sixers in an entertaining five-game series. Animosity grew greatly between the two teams this past playoffs, and with the future looking incredibly bright for both teams, it seems like the rivalry is finally back to its best.
With LeBron James signing with the Lakers, the Eastern Conference is now up for grabs between the Celtics, the Sixers, and the perpetual choke jobs, the Toronto Raptors. Most people should now see that the Celtics are the best team in the East and will dominate the conference for years to come. They beat Philly in five games without two of their best players, and were one game away from making the NBA Finals. But professional idiots like Nick Wright of Fox Sports have said that the Sixers will be better than the Celtics this year and for years to come. I am here to tell you that these people could not be more wrong: the Celtics will own the Sixers and rule the rivalry for the near future.
No matter what people say, the Celtics have the better all-around team. With the exception of Greg Monroe and Shane Larkin, who barely featured last playoffs, the Celtics are bringing back their entire team along with Hayward, Irving, and Theis, who will be at full health. The Sixers lost bench scorers Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli and replaced them with Wilson Chandler and Zhaire Smith, a first-round draft pick who is out injured with a broken foot.
So basically, since the two teams met last playoffs, the Celtics have gotten much better with the addition of two All-Stars, and the Sixers have stayed the same for the most part. Boston also has a much deeper team than Philadelphia. Players like Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris, Marcus Smart, and Aron Baynes among others, all played big minutes in the playoffs last year and will all come off the bench this year.
In addition, the Celtics have one of the best coaches in the NBA in Brad Stevens, while Brett Brown, the Sixers coach, showed his inexperience last season and was noticeably out coached by Stevens in the playoffs. And while former Sixers GM Bryan Colangelo was using his burner accounts to insult his own players, Celtics GM Danny Ainge was setting up his team for the future acquiring many good draft picks for the Celtics, including a likely lottery pick from the Kings for this year. The wealth the Celtics have in draft picks compared to the Sixers is another reason why they will own the East for the coming years.
The Celtics also know how to play against the Sixers. They understand the strengths and weaknesses of Philly and use them to their advantage. For instance, look at how Al Horford defended Ben Simmons last year. Simmons is a player that relies on his athleticism, speed, and height which allows him to drive the lane and score around the basket. However, he has the shooting ability of Andre Drummond and will never settle for long jump shots. Horford knew that if he played aggressive defense on Simmons, that he would get beat off the dribble easily and allow Simmons to attack the basket. Simmons’s first step is too quick for Horford. Also, Horford knew that if he played too far back on Simmons giving him too much space, Simmons would use the space to gain speed and power to score past him. Horford had perfect defensive positioning when guarding the tall point guard. He played sort of in the middle (not too far up on Simmons and not too far back of him) not allowing Simmons to successfully attack the basket and score the way he did against the rest of the NBA. This limited Simmons to just one point in Game 2 and exposed the offensive flaws in his game. Al Horford showed the NBA that Simmons is just an overhyped, tall Rajon Rondo, who couldn’t shoot if his life depended on it.
The Celtics also figured out how to slow down Joel Embiid and JJ Redick. Embiid has a much more complete skill set than Simmons, and is a better scorer, but Aron Baynes was able to contain him and slow him down. He used his physicality to match up against Embiid and frustrated him throughout the playoff series. Marcus Smart is one of the most tenacious defenders in the NBA and he had the task of guarding the sharpshooter JJ Redick. Smart’s quickness and tenacity prevented Redick from getting many open looks from beyond the arc giving him practically no space to create his own offense.
The Celtics are able to take advantage of the Sixers on the offensive end as well. Horford had a great offensive series against Philly because he exploited many defensive mismatches. Stevens would draw up plays to get Horford the ball at the top of the key when Embiid was guarding him. Horford is the faster player so he was able to take Embiid off the dribble and score at the basket multiple times last year. Stevens also drew up plays for players such as Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum who used their length and speed to score against slower defenders like Redick. The Celtics are able to consistently get the matchups they want against the Sixers and punish them because of that.
The fact that the Celtics have a much better all around team, a smarter coach, and a much more effective game plan than the Sixers is enough to prove that they will dominate the rivalry for the near future. However, the biggest reason why is that the Philadelphia 76ers are afraid of the Boston Celtics. The mental shortcomings of Philly were shown throughout the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Celtics last year. In Game 1, the Sixers quit in the fourth quarter. When the Celtics started to go on a run, instead of battling back and holding their ground, the Sixers stopped fighting. Instead of busting on defense, they stood still and watched Terry Rozier bury open three after open three. Ben Simmon even had the audacity to substitute himself out of the game in the fourth. By the time the final buzzer rang, the entire team with the exception of the five men on the court was in the tunnel leading to the locker room. The energy and passion of the Celtics intimidated the Sixers who had given up on a game they needed to win.
When facing Boston, the Sixers also love to blow big leads. In the NBA London game, they blew an over twenty point lead in the second quarter. The Celtics ended up winning easily after an awfully slow start. In Game 2 of the East Semis, they blew a 22-point lead and lost. In Game 3, they blew another lead, this time in overtime, as they went down 0-3 to the Celtics. In Game 5, they weren’t able to close out the game blowing a small 4-point lead with under two minutes to go. When the Celtics put any sort of pressure against the Sixers, they seem to fold.
I know this is more of a personal opinion rather than fact, but I truly believe that Philly is afraid of Boston. Joel Embiid looked like a broken man after turning the ball over with a chance to tie the game late in Game 5 in Boston. I heard the “Not a Rookie” and “Embiid Sucks” chants mocking the Sixers’ top players. I was in the TD Garden and watched the Sixers turn the ball over on every single possession and refuse to get back on defense while the Celtics went on their big run. I noticed how the deafening roar of the Boston crowd caused the visiting team to struggle and lose momentum on both ends of the court. It was JJ Redick who acknowledged that the Boston crowd was the loudest he’s ever heard. \
The Sixers know that the Celtics have a better team. They know that the Celtics have a smarter coach and better, more thought out gameplan. They know that the Celtics can stop them on offense and score on them on defense. They know that they are intimidated by the Boston crowd. They know that they fear the Celtics. When the Celtics start to grind, the Sixers relent. We saw this time and time again throughout last season. The Sixers are aware that the Celtics have their number, but they do not have the fight and mental toughness to overcome their past failures. The Philadelphia 76ers are a good basketball team, but they cannot and will not beat the Boston Celtics and take control of the Eastern Conference anytime soon.
Nevertheless, both Celtics, Sixers, and general NBA fans should be excited for the revival of the Boston vs. Philly rivalry. Both teams will have great seasons and will be great for the years to come. I just believe that the Celtics have Philly’s number and are in a better position to succeed based on previous matchups.
Photo: NBC Sports