They have a history. They have a future.
No two franchises have met more often in the NBA playoffs than the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, who have faced each other 20 times in postseason history (seven when the Sixers were the Syracuse Nationals). It’s a rivalry that has featured Hal Greer vs. Sam Jones, Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell, and Julius Erving vs. Larry Bird. It has featured seven decisive Game 7s, “Havlicek stole the ball!”, “Beat L.A.!”, and “The Boston Strangler.”
And now, we may have just entered a stretch like what we saw in the early ’80s, when the Celtics and Sixers met in the Eastern Conference finals four times in six years (1980, ’81, ’82, and ’85).
Five months ago, the Celtics eliminated the Sixers in five games in the East semis. With LeBron James now in the Western Conference, these teams each have the opportunity to rule the East for years to come, and they’re standing in each other’s way.
The Celtics are one of the three franchises — the Knicks and Warriors are the others — remaining from the Basketball Association of America, founded in 1946. The Syracuse Nationals started in the National Basketball League in ’46 and joined the NBA in 1949.
Boston and Syracuse would first meet in the postseason in 1953, with Bob Cousy’s Celtics ousting Dolph Schayes’ Nats in the Eastern Division semifinals. That would begin a nine-year stretch in which the two teams would meet in the playoffs seven times, highlighted by a seven-game series in the 1959 division finals, with the Celtics winning Game 7, 130-125.
Boston won four of the seven series the two teams played before the Nats moved to Philadelphia in 1963 and became the 76ers. Philly added Chamberlain a year later and he would go head-to-head with Russell in the next four Division finals (1965-68), with the Celtics winning three of the four times, including seven-game series in ’65 (with John Havlicek’s famous steal sealing the Game 7 victory) and ’68.
The rivalry hit another peak in the early 80s, when either Boston or Philadelphia represented the East in The Finals for eight straight years (1980-87), with talent like Erving and Bird, Moses Malone and Robert Parish, Maurice Cheeks and Dennis Johnson, Bobby Jones and Kevin McHale.
With last year’s victory in the conference semifinals, the Celtics are 13-7 in playoff series all-time vs. Syracuse/Philadelphia, with a 9-4 edge against the Sixers since the ’63 move. Havlicek, Sam Jones and Bird rank first, second and fourth in all-time playoff scoring (total points) vs. the Nats/Sixers, while Chamberlain, Greer and Julius Erving rank third, fifth and sixth vs. Boston.
WHERE THEY STAND NOW
These are two of the best three teams in the Eastern Conference, with the league’s GMs placing them first and third. The Celtics beat the Sixers in a five-game series in May, slowing down a Philly offense that had been on an eight-week tear and out-executing the Sixers in three games that were within five points in the last five minutes. And Boston did it without Gordon Hayward or Kyrie Irving. Kia Rookie of the Year winner Ben Simmons had a rough series, Joel Embiid was outplayed by Al Horford and Jayson Tatum blossomed into a star.
Boston had the league’s best defense last season and is adding Hayward to an offense that ranked 18th and will also get a boost from the development of the young core of Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier.
Philly ranked third offensively in March and April, but lost a couple of key offensive cogs — Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova — in the offseason. The Sixers ranked third defensively and with a huge starting lineup, were the best rebounding team in the league.
In Boston, the biggest variable this season will be chemistry. Defensively, the Celtics should once again be in the top five and how well the pieces all fit together on offense will determine their ceiling. Hayward has yet to really play with this group and Irving has yet to run an offense that includes the Tatum and Brown that we saw in the playoffs. The Celtics have the right coach to make it all work, but some egos will have to be kept in check over the next nine months.
For the Sixers, it’s all about Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 pick of the 2017 Draft who played in just 14 regular season games and didn’t play in the conference semis. Fultz adds a new element to the Philly offense and will be given the chance to start alongside Simmons, even if it means breaking up what was the best starting lineup in the league last season.
As skilled as Fultz is at getting to the hoop, all eyes will be on how willing and comfortable he is in shooting from beyond 15 feet. He should be plenty motivated otherwise, but the trade these teams made just before the ’17 Draft just adds more intrigue to this rivalry. The Celtics traded out of the No. 1 spot, picked up an extra pick in the deal, selected Tatum at No. 3, and saw him have a spectacular rookie season — all while Fultz dealt with his shooting issues.
The development of all the other young players on these rosters is another variable. While the Celtics have more weapons, both Simmons and Embiid have the potential to be players that no team can match up with. Boston found ways to slow them down in the playoffs, but both are sure to come back stronger and more skilled.
Not only do the Celtics and Sixers have some of the best young talent already on their rosters, but even if they’re two of the best teams in the league, they each have potential Lottery picks in their pocket. The Celtics are owed first round picks from the Sacramento Kings (the extra pick in the Fultz-Tatum trade, top-one protected) and the Memphis Grizzlies (top-eight protected) in next year’s Draft. The Sixers, meanwhile, will get the Miami Heat’s first round pick in 2021.
Philadelphia has the cap space to add a big contract next summer. Boston, for five years running now, has the assets to pull off a trade for any star that may come on the market. The Celtics may lose some of their backcourt depth with Terry Rozier’s free agency next summer, but almost all of the Celtics’ young talent is on the perimeter and at some point, they’ll need to replace Horford (32) and Aron Baynes (32 in December) on the frontline. For now, Horford is arguably the most valuable player on either team.
The future is now and appropriately, these teams will open the NBA season in Boston on Oct. 16 (8 p.m. ET, TNT).