by Jake Fischer / @JakeLFischer
When the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers met in the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals, national media spewed the narrative that the series was renewing one of the Leagues’ classic rivalries. The Sixers’ PR department took the bait. When Philly fans flooded the Wells Fargo Center for Game 3 with the Sixers tied 1-1, each spectator received a white rally towel with both the Sixers’ and Celtics’ logos in the middle and the phrase “The Classic Rivalry Continues…” plastered at the top.
Yet even though the series lasted seven games, the matchup was hardly Larry Bird vs Dr. J. Kevin Garnett manhandled Spencer Hawes in the post. Ray Allen ran Evan Turner silly off screens and Rajon Rondo was too much for future All-Star Jrue Holiday to handle. The Sixers solely managed their three wins in games they were able to run their older division foes ragged.
No, these teams weren’t rivals in 2012. But technically speaking, they are now. On draft night, both Danny Ainge and new Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie made it clear their respective franchises were entering rebuilding mode. The Celtics moved on from their decorated Big Three era and the Sixers pushed past the awkward phase where they attempted to remain relevant following Allen Iverson’s departure. This season, both teams are competing for the best draft pick.
On Wednesday, the two teams met for the first time during this rebuilding experience. With Rondo sidelined on the second night of a back-to-back, the game was mostly a snooze fest. Sure, it came down the final buzzer when Evan Turner dropped in a 6-foot runner to beat the clock and give Philly the win. But the two teams combined to shoot 1-11 from the field and 5-12 from the line in the games final 3:58 for a total 7 points before Turner’s prayer was answered—this wasn’t your typical, thrilling buzzer-beater finish.
But those growing pains are part of this process of moving forward. And the fact that these teams were so evenly matched is something that likely won’t fade over the next five to seven years as they each build toward once again contending in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference.
“You want to have a rivalry with every team, that’s how it should be, that’s how we should be playing,” said Celtics rookie forward Kelly Olynyk, who was just named to the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge. “They have a lot of good young guys that are real athletic, long, so they definitely are on the rise.”
Olynyk has also been impressed by another Rising Stars participant, Sixers rookie Michael Carter-Williams.
“He’s been real good. He’s got a great opportunity over there and he’s taking advantage of it to the fullest,” Olynyk said. “I’ve seen him play a couple times on TV and stuff but just looking at what he’s done over the year in box scores and highlights, he’s taking advantage of what he’s been given and he’s really found a good home in that team and that system. Not only is he helping himself, but he’s helping that team.”
Any budding rivalry between Philadelphia and Boston will mean a little bit more to MCW. As an Eastern Massachusetts native, same with fellow Sixers 2013 lottery pick Nerlens Noel, Carter-Williams grew up rooting for the Celtics.
“It’s great playing against them, playing against my hometown team. I’ve been a fan of theirs for a while so it’s great to come and play against them,” the leading candidate for NBA’s Rookie of the Year said. “I’m just trying to focus on one game at a time. Playing against them is great, but I just got to focus on my teammates and each game.
Carter-Williams’ coach, Brett Brown, also hails from New England. Having grown up in Maine and played college ball at Boston University under Rick Pitino, Brown recognizes how much a Celtics-Sixers rivalry could do for the League.
“For me personally, for sure. But I think it’s a lot deeper than me. It’s sort of been like that for many, many moons,” Brown said. “I’d like to see it get to that level as I remember it. Philly-Boston battles were always special and I look forward to trying to help rekindle those types of memories.”
Both teams certainly have the key pieces in place. The Celtics still have Rondo, a solid shooting guard in Avery Bradley and promising frontcourt pieces in Jared Sullinger and Olynyk. Whether Jeff Green sticks around in Beantown is still unknown. The Sixers have two potential franchise cornerstones in Carter-Williams and Noel. They also will likely own two first-round picks in this summer’s Draft and could have a holdover like Thaddeus Young in the mix as well.
“It always gets down to the quality of the teams,” Brown said. “As we build our programs, hopefully we can all experience some playoff basketball down the road—hopefully not too far down the road—and then I think the rivalry becomes even more real.”
The goals of both the Celtics’ and Sixers’ front offices is clear: build a title contender through the Draft. Ainge has traded for a potential six extra first-round picks over the next five years. Meanwhile, the 2014 lottery could ultimately be a franchise-changer for Philly. And, these teams are now even further connected following Miami trading the rights to the Sixers’ 2014 protected first-round pick—it’s lottery protected, so the earliest Boston can snatch that is 2015—as part of the Jordan Crawford three-way trade earlier this month.
So while Wednesday’s game may have been painful to watch, especially in contrast to the KD-LeBron battle that was simultaneously taking place in Miami, the future looks extremely bright for both teams. Maybe the epic rivalry can actually be renewed in the next few years.