I suppose the Celtics’ 108-97 victory over the Sixers on Thursday night won’t be showing up on NBA TV’s “Hardwood Classics’’ any time soon, and not just because seemingly 90 percent of the games on “Hardwood Classics’’ involve the soul-crushing ’90s Knicks.
The game wasn’t a rock fight, but it wasn’t a gem, either. Kyrie Irving scored 36 points via his usual wizardry, and the Sixers’ Ben Simmons (15 points, 7 assists, 5 steals) offered a first-hand look to Boston fans on what a magnificent all-around nuisance he is going to be for the next dozen years, health permitting.
But Joel Embiid, who does Olajuwon/McHale things in the post and has officially reached must-watch status, sat out on the second night of a back-to-back, a prudent move for the Sixers, a welcome one for the Celtics, but an unsatisfying one for basketball fans in the moment.
And there really wasn’t much suspense — the Celtics led by 10 at halftime, endured a few hiccups in the third quarter, then put it away in the fourth when Irving activated his turbo button.
While the game itself was no classic, it did offer the promise of something even better: The pending revival of a classic rivalry. No, Thursday’s game didn’t matter much more than your standard Thursday night regular-season game in December. But it was a reminder that this once-great rivalry is about to matter a whole heck of a lot once again.
Now, the common perception is that Celtics v. Lakers is the greatest rivalry in NBA history. It’s probably even true given that they have combined for 33 championships and have collided a dozen times in the NBA Finals. It began in the ’50s, included the greatest players the game has known, and has mattered to multiple generations.
The ancient nostalgists will linger on the franchises’ six NBA Finals meetings in the ’60s, all won by Bill Russell and the Celtics. The aging nostalgists like me dwell on the three matchups in the ’80s and the glory of the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson era, which to me is Peak NBA, presuming we’re not experiencing it right now. And you younger types have the two recent matchups (2008, ’10) as your indoctrination into how tense, compelling, and entertaining Celtics-Lakers can be.
But Celtics-Sixers is second among storied showdowns, and it might even be 1A.
In 1965, when John Havlicek stole the ball, it occurred not in the Finals against the Lakers, but in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in a 1-point win over the Sixers. In 1967, it was Wilt Chamberlain and the 68-win Sixers who ended the Celtics’ eight-year reign as champions. The next season, the Celtics exacted payback, rallying from a 3-1 deficit to win the Eastern Conference title in seven games en route to another NBA title.
The Celtics-Sixers rivalry was never more contentious than it was in the early ’80s, when they would bludgeon each other in the playoffs while the Lakers typically coasted through the Downy-soft Western Conference, save for the occasional Houston Rockets interlude. The teams collided in the Eastern Conference finals for three straight years starting in 1980 — Larry Bird’s rookie season.
Each was a ferocious, grueling series. The Julius Erving-led Sixers prevailed in ’80. In ’81, the Celtics rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Sixers in seven game, with Bird banking in a winning jumper to cap a rally from 7 points down in the final minutes of the finale. The Celtics fell behind 3-1 again in ’82, but they could not stop Sixers guard and all-time Celtics killer Andrew Toney, and Philadelphia won Game 7 in Boston, leading Celtics fans to pay proper respects to their conquerers by chanting “Beat L.A’’ in the closing minutes.
The rivalry has perked up occasionally in the years since the heyday. In 2001-02, the Sixers and Celtics battled it out in the first round of the playoffs in a five-game series. After complaining about his touches following a Game 4 loss, Paul Pierce came of age in Game 5, scoring 46 points in a 33-point Celtics win. It’s an underrated pivotal moment in his career.
But there hasn’t been much other than that in recent seasons, with the franchises at different stages at different times. The Sixers spent years deep in Sam Hinkie’s “The Process,’’ which meant all-out tanking to reload in the draft. If Simmons and Embiid can stay on the court together, it will be an unqualified, if somewhat shady, success.
In the meantime, the Celtics found themselves caught in different and more complex process of their own. After winning one championship in the six seasons of the New Big Three era, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge pulled off the extraordinarily difficult achievement of a full-on rebuild without having to sacrifice multiple seasons of competiveness.
The Celtics did it while falling below sea level only briefly – they won 25 games in 2013-14, Brad Stevens’s first season, after Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce had been traded to the Nets for a bushel of draft picks, and they went 40-42 the following year. They’ve been competitive, and even a fringe contender, since.
Now it looks like the Celtics and Sixers could be duking it out for Eastern Conference supremacy for years to come. The Celtics are the more complete team now and could conceivably reach the NBA Finals this season. The Sixers are further back, but they could arrive in a hurry given Simmons and Embiid’s breathtaking skill levels.
There’s so much young talent involved on both sides. Jayson Tatum and Markelle Fultz — who, you will recall, were essentially swapped for each other, with the Celtics picking up a sweet draft pick in the deal — are just 19. Simmons and Jaylen Brown are 21. Embiid is 23. Heck, Irving is only 25.
I so hope all of these players stay healthy and fulfill their talent, both franchises live up to their end of the bargain, and this rivalry gets a full rejuvenation. I want the Eastern Conference order of the early ’80s to be restored. I want more chapters in this fascinating rivalry. I want Celtics-Sixers to matter again like it should. We got a glimpse of the revival Thursday night. Here’s to it only getting better from here.
What I do not want, I should note, is the second coming of Andrew Toney to show up on the Sixers’ roster. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.