NBA has been sorely lacking rivalry between 76ers and Celtics

(Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
(Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images) /

The rivalry between the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics took a direction on Wednesday night in favor of Brett Brown’s squad, but no matter the outcome, the competition is vital to the league.

Over 20,000 fans packed inside the Wells Fargo Center on their feet Wednesday night to cheer on the Philadelphia 76ers taking on the Boston Celtics, generating a buzz that bounced back-and-forth between the concrete walls enclosing the arena.

The seven-foot star center of the Sixers Joel Embiid had locked down the elusively quick Kyrie Irving in the final moments when it mattered the most, going step-for-step with the six-time All-Star guard.

Embiid’s emphatic swatting away of the attempt to shrink the Sixer lead to one point appeared to be the big man’s way of saying “not in my house.”

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Marcus Morris tossed a frantic follow-up shot over the outstretched arms of three swarming Philadelphia defenders that bounced off the front of the rim, and Embiid ripped the board away from Irving, further asserting his dominance on the court.

With just under 10 seconds remaining on the clock, time moved at a pace resembling a family of snails out on a Sunday afternoon stroll through the park. A three-second difference between the shot and game clock for the Sixers left the crowd uneasy, understanding that any glimmer of hope for the Celtics could lead to a disastrous result for the home team yet again.

Jimmy Butler backed down and bodied Irving, protecting a three-point Sixers lead. Morris slipped over to double-team Butler, and with the shot clock transitioning to a neon red five-second countdown, the ball slipped from Butler’s grasp. It dribbled toward the sideline nearest the Sixers bench and millions of hearts across the Delaware Valley skipped a beat.

Irving hit the floor, selling out his body in an effort to recover the fleeing basketball, but Butler nabbed possession. Struggling to regain balance after Irving nearly took out his legs, Butler stumbled into a jump step and rose towards the rafters, letting loose an 18-foot corner jumper.

As he came back down to earth, resurfacing in a stealthy squat, the ball coursed through the rim barely tickling the net, flushing away Philadelphia’s darkest demon.

Butler stood frozen in his squatted position, staring down the cylinder he dropped 15 points in the fourth quarter on, while teammates surrounded him to celebrate the feat they had conquered, and the crowd erupted in a deafening roar.

A matchup that once drew the sounds of crickets in a desolate arena, where you could find lower-level tickets for $15 to watch the riveting battle between Kelly Olynk and Henry Simms now blasted the popular victory tune for the Sixers. A sold-out Wells Fargo Center crowd singing along for the first time in the regular season in over a year during a game against the Celtics was music to the ears of any Philadelphia fan, but they still have plenty of work to do.

Though Philly has often been on the losing end, the modern-day rendition of the Sixers-Celtics rivalry is incredibly beneficial to the league. There is a rich history of rivalries throughout the NBA’s golden years, but the new era has witnessed the heated combat between two bitter enemies dissipate to shards of what used to be.

Players don’t stay in one place long enough to develop a will to defend the name on the front of the jersey.

Instead of facing their fiercest competitors head-on, they team up and join forces. Deathly stares and the drive to kill have been replaced by smiles, laughter and mid-game butt slaps between opponents.

Yes, there are still memorable games, tense moments, and the league is constantly increasing in popularity, but the Boston-Philly rivalry brings a playoff atmosphere to every regular-season matchup. Stars selling out for the cause, sprawling and diving across the court. Trash talk, chippy scrapping, and full-blown shoves leading to ejections.

The storyline is almost too good to be true (or too bad for Philly fans). Sixers trade with a conference rival in “stealing” their first-overall pick, only to select Markelle Fultz, potentially one of the biggest busts in NBA history.

Meanwhile, the Celtics sit back and get Jayson Tatum, the player they wanted all along, and additional picks to boot.

Philly’s two young studs develop and the team transforms into a contender, but the Celtics are the one hurdle they can’t seem to jump. Every time they fall short, it feels like Tatum is always the one thrusting the sword through the Sixers’ heart.

It’s two cities with a deep and celebrated history in sports. Both Philadelphia and Boston live for their teams. Despite the similarities, they undoubtedly despise each other.

The Sixers and Celtics are both constructed in the same fashion, as a core of young talent drafted and groomed as one of their own from the start surrounded by star players acquired in trades to take the team to the next level.

Butler and Irving may now be referred to as “seasoned vets” (though most 26 year-olds are hardly seasoned vets) while Ben Simmons, Embiid, Tatum, and Jaylen Brown are considered the future of the league.

But sprinkle on Tobias Harris and Gordon Hayward to the mix for each team, you have the perfect recipe for a healthy rivalry for years to come.

It’s no secret that the Sixers have issues matching up with the Celtics and you could make an argument that Brad Stevens owns a significant amount of real estate inside Brett Brown’s noggin, but Wednesday night’s triumph could be a turning point in the Sixer-Celtics history books.

Let’s get everything out in the open. The game, in terms of seeding, meant little to nothing. Hayward wasn’t playing. Aron Baynes left early with an injury. Marcus Smart left early thanks to his inability to maintain his composure in the heat of the battle, making it seem like the rivalry got the best of him.

There are reasons that some will write off the victory by the Sixers as a fluke. To Philadelphia, it feels like the starting five are finally meshing and figuring out the chemistry.

Defeating the Greek Freak on the road and slaying the dragon that is the Celtics in the same week leaves Sixers fans worldwide believing the team has figured out how to make a legitimate run at the Finals.

Whether that is a reasonable expectation, only time will tell, but one thing is at least for certain. Whenever the Sixers square up against the Celtics, the world will be glued to the screen.

If all the stars align, we could be eyeing up a Boston-Philly matchup when the stakes are highest during the Eastern Conference Finals with a spot to compete for a World Championship in the NBA Finals on the line.

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Sixers fans can only hope for a fairy tale ending, but at least Wednesday’s win over the Celtics was a major step in the right direction as far as the rivalry is concerned.