There is something perfectly beautiful about the Philadelphia 76ers going into Boston to start a series for no other reason than to jolt the mind. I guess past is prologue. With both sides loving themselves and their game and what they have accomplished this year, the ones who remember how it used to be want a throwback to the old days, or at least a tiny glimpse of it. Andrew Toney lighting up the Celtics. The fight when Auerbach came down from the stands to cool things down but too late, Billy Cunningham, the Sixers coach, had his jacket ripped. Not to mention the Bird hand on Dr. J’s throat and Dr. J. reciprocating.
The Beat L.A. chant started because of Sixers-Celtics. Those who don’t believe 80’s basketball was the golden age of the NBA weren’t alive to witness it. Rivalries mattered and were seeping in hatred equal to the size of Sisyphyus’ rock. Lakers hated the Celtics. Celtics hated the 76ers. 76ers hated Boston’s. The coaches and GM’s (especially Auerbach) were all in on the seething animus and the fans went along for the ride, not thinking it was ever going to end. And then bitterly accepting that all things end, until the next generation picks it up.
The Sixers-Celtics hate fest didn’t end as much as it went on a long vacation.
A rivalry needs playoff competition. The Celtics beat the Sixers in 1965 despite three Sixers players averaging 20+ points (Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Chet Walker.) The Sixers lost to the Celtics the next year too. The next year the Sixers beat the Celtics, won the Finals with the same combo of Wilt, Greer and Walker doing the heavy lifting. Future Sixers coach Billy Cunningham was on that team. They lost to the Celtics the next year. In 1969, Wilt was gone.
In 1977, the Sixers beat the Celtics on way to a NBA Finals loss to the Blazers. The ’80s was when it got real. The Sixers beat the C’s in 1980 and lost to the Lakers in the Finals, that infamous myth of a game where Magic played all 5 positions. Larry Bird beat the Sixers the next year. The Sixers had revenge in 1982 but lost to the Lakers again in the Finals. (The Sixers won the title with Moses demoralizing L.A. in a sweep the next year).
In 1985, the Sixers were a hiccup on the Celtics way to the Finals, a loss. That ended the 80’s rivalry, a whimper, an echo and then it was done. A vague outline of the series presented itself when Iverson lost to Paul Pierce and Antonie Walker in 2003.
That was that.
The problem with rivalries is that players get old. When they get old, they get mellow. They mature. They can’t be bated into a fight because what the f*** for? The fans are still animated and aggressive but the era has come to an end and the players settle down. I remember after a Boston loss that knocked them out of the playoffs, a person in my life called a random Boston number and began talking a bunch of crap to them about how they suck and how they were losers. It turned out the Boston woman who answered the phone was about 90 years old and had no clue what my friend was talking about. That’s how rivalries go on hiatus. People get old, there isn’t much to get angry about anymore and so they just marinate in memories. But memories are passive. Until, everyone gets worked up again.
What they are saying about this 76ers-Celtics series is probably true. The Sixers are the big favorites because of injuries to Boston. But it’s going to be a tough out because the Sixers are not playing the anemic scoring Heat who were dependent on an aged star. Joel Embiid is going to have to stay on the perimeter with Al Horford. Marcus Smart of the Celtics has a high basketball I.Q. in moments of great stress. He’s going to get the charge, the tech, the open three. The collection of gritty Celtics don’t back down and believe they can beat anyone. Brad Stevens is the best coach in the league to get non elite players to believe they are Michael Jordan. And he can scheme like he’s Mike D’Antoni.
Traditional wisdom says the best player on the floor wins the series. The best player is Joel Embiid. He is supported by Ben Simmons. The Celtics have zero equivalency but they do have heart. Heart is what made the 76ers-Celtics rivalry one of the NBA’s best.
If you think that doesn’t matter, well you don’t know Sixers- Celtics basketball.