Sylver: On Hating Joel Embiid and The New Celtics-76ers Rivalry
I’m done with The Process.
I’m tired of the breathless tweets, of NBA literati salivating all over their keyboards. When the 76ers knocked off the Heat last week to win a playoff series for the first time since before they went in the tank five years ago, you would’ve thought a parade was forthcoming, complete with Sam Hinkie floats, costumed emojis, and Meek Mill as the grand marshal. It it happens, I hope somebody lets Kevin Hart on stage.
I’m tired of Joel Embiid. Tired of hearing about him, tired of his on-court braggadocio, tired of his off-court rendition of an over-dramatic teen on AOL Instant Messenger. I’m sure it’s amusing to some. After all, sports should be fun.
But he’s not my center. He plays for the Sixers.
It’s an immensely talented, balanced bunch – different from the squad the Celtics dispatched in three out of of four regular season meetings, the most recent all the way back on January 18th. Things have changed for the Celtics since then, too, with leading scorer Kyrie Irving sidelined March 11th, never to return. Meanwhile, Philadelphia rattled off 15 consecutive wins to close the campaign, cementing their status as darlings of the Eastern Conference.
But they’re the Sixers.
A generation ago, this team, not the Lakers, was the Celtics’ greatest rival. At the dawn of the 1980’s, the Lakers stood 0-for-7 against the Celtics in the Finals and had collected just a single title since moving from Minneapolis two decades prior. It was Philly who halted the Boston streak of eight consecutive championships in 1967. Philly who, emboldened by the NBA-ABA merger a decade later, dispatched the defending NBA champs in the conference semifinals.
For their part, Sixers fans would never forget the nights Russell punked Wilt, particularly the one where Havlicek stole the ball.
Boston had the Garden of myth and legend. Philly had the raucous Spectrum. Boston was led by a virtuoso named Bird; their artist-in-residence was the incomparable Dr. J. Starting in 1980, the two teams met four out of six years in the conference finals. It was a run that featured no fewer than 10 Hall of Famers and a supporting cast with a slew of All-Star selections and All-Defensive nods. While the Lakers picked daisies out West on their way to the Finals every year, the Celtics and Sixers routinely spent two weeks of May engaged in a captivating street fight.
The rancor extended beyond the springtime. There was the 1983 preseason skirmish with Bird threatening to slug Marc Iavaroni, Cedric Maxwell deciding he’d had enough of Moses Malone’s crap and chucking the ball at his antagonist, and Red Auerbach in the face of Sixers coach Billy Cunningham. A November 1984 tussle produced the famous image of Bird and Erving at each other’s throats.
There was front office maneuvering: Auerbach’s acquisition of Hall of Fame guard Dennis Johnson never would have happened had electric guard Andrew Toney failed to put the Celtics in a bodybag in Game 7 of the 1982 conference finals. Similarly, Philadelphia imported rebounding machine Malone in the autumn of 1982 to, among other things, keep Parish, McHale and Maxwell off the boards.
The matchups themselves were intoxicating. While the establishment Sixers bounced the upstart Celtics in five games of the first go-round, Auerbach added Parish and McHale to his roster the following summer in one of his most lauded heists. The result was a classic seven-game set where five of the contests were decided by two points or less, with Boston famously battling back from 3-1 down to punch their ticket to the Finals. The turning point? Perhaps Game 6, when Maxwell got a cup of beer dumped on him near the baseline and responded by personally ushering the offending fan back to his seat.
With the Celtics securing their 14th title in 1981, they once again found themselves down 3-1 to Philadelphia the following spring. With their team gamely coming back to produce another Game 7 at the Garden, a group of Boston fans dressed in bed sheets as “Ghosts of Celtics Past.” Written on the sheets in permanent marker were the names Russell, Havlicek, Sam Jones, Don Nelson, Tom Sanders.
“I thought it was the Klan.” mused Dr. J.
It wasn’t, The Sixers extinguished the hope of a repeat choke with a 120-106 win. They would lose to LA that spring, bounce back to nearly go Fo’, Fo’, Fo’ to the title in 1983, and watch Boston raise another banner in 1984.
A year later, the Celtics pinched the lingering flame of the Dr. J era in five. Rookie Charles Barkley had joined the fray, but even the Round Mound of Rebound wasn’t enough to contain Parish (13 rebounds per game) or the inevitable decline of an aging Dr. J. Maxwell delighted in the opportunity to pile on. “Their pulse is fading fast. Better call a priest.”
That would be it, for a while. Boston grabbed another championship in 1986 and aged out of contention as the Bad Boy Pistons and Jordan Bulls assumed Eastern Conference supremacy. For Philadelphia, the tumble would be much more dramatic: Erving retired, Toney succumbed to bad knees, and Malone was unceremoniously dumped for spare parts. Barkley remained to coax playoff appearances out of a squad that was good, but not great, before he too was dealt to Phoenix for Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry and Andrew Lang.
The Celtics rubbed some salt in the wound in 2002 when Jim O’Brien’s three-happy club knocked off Allen Iverson, Dikembe Mutombo and the defending Eastern Conference champs. In 2012, the Green prevailed over the Sixers in an ugly seven-game set. To date, the cities of Boston and Philadelphia have met on 15 occasions in the NBA playoffs. The Celtics have prevailed 11 times.
Let’s make it 12. Not too many people are picking the Celtics for reasons beyond, “Philly’s not ready for the bright lights.” Boston’s roster has been picked at so thoroughly by the injury buzzards that even Adam Jones is impressed. Jaylen Brown’s status is in doubt. It just took the Celtics seven games to get past the Milwaukee Bucks.
But Boston fans have historically relished the role of plucky underdog. Enough of Philly’s hollow rags to riches story, one where they converted exactly two of the high draft picks they received in return for five years of waterboarding their fan base. Enough about Simmons’ triple-double heroics and Embiid’s pivot mastery in a league where nobody can guard the low post anymore. Yes, they’re great players. They’re also standing on the next rung of a ladder the Celtics want to climb. And even if Boston doesn’t have the firepower this year, Philly’s still going to be in the way next year, and the year after that.
So let’s have some bad blood. Let’s birth a whole new generation of heroes and villains to sustain us for the better part of a decade.
To paraphrase Joe Murray, I’m OUT on The Process.
Unless the Lakers get LeBron and they wind up going against the Sixers. Beat LA, always and forever.