When the 2019-20 NBA season began roughly 13 years ago, the only team in the East I really thought was clearly better than the Celtics was the Sixers.
They had star power and they had size. The Celtics' roster could handle the former. The latter? No way.
Then the season started and the Sixers became the biggest mess in the NBA.
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The roster was loaded on paper, but clearly flawed to the eye. They played their way to the No. 6 seed at the stoppage, with Al Horford saying in a press conference that there was "stuff going on in the locker room."
Sounds kind of like last year's Celtics: good on paper but rotten to the core.
So why is Philly still the only team that really scares me in the East?
No, for real. I wasn't doing that classic writing move of asking a question and following up with the answer in the next graf. I'm asking because I don't know, so let's sift through this and try to determine whether this is a rational fear.
The Sixers seemed to have trouble with everyone but the Celtics. They took the first three meetings of the season, including a win over Boston without Joel Embiid. Here are their records against the playoff teams in the East:
vs. Milwaukee: 1-2
vs. Toronto: 1-2
vs. Boston: 3-1
vs. Miami: 1-3
vs. Indiana: 1-2
vs. Brooklyn: 3-1
vs. Orlando: 0-2
Factor in that the Nets were without Kyrie Irving in all but one of those games and you have this: The 76ers couldn't beat good teams, unless that good team was the Celtics.
On the other hand, it's worth making an important distinction between three losses and one win: The three losses came before mid-January, when Jayson Tatum turned into an absolute monster. In the first meeting with the Sixers since Tatum became that player, the C's beat Philly by 21 points.
The Celtics were without Kemba walker in that game, but Tatum dropped 25 points (the most he's had in a game against Philly this season) and Jaylen Brown led the C's with 32.
So if the Jayson Tatum that emerged in mid-January shows up in Orlando, the fear of the Sixers should subside.
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There are still two things that worry me, though: the size differential and the small possibility that whatever chemistry issues the Sixers had have healed over the last however many months. If Philly comes back and the right guys are swallowing their pride, maybe they'll stop underachieving and be a dangerous team in the East.
Fortunately for the Celtics, there's a good chance they won't have to worry about it in the first round. Philly is tied with the No. 5 seed Pacers and have a joke of a schedule for the eight seeding games. When all is said and done, there's a good chance Philly is the No. 5 seed (and don't rule out the Celtics making up three games to wrest the No. 2 seed from Toronto).
And as long as the Sixers' issues from this season remain, they'd be a decent bet to get bounced by the Heat in that scenario, rendering it a non-issue for the Celtics.
If it goes another way and Philly ends up playing Boston, I'll still be a bit nervous. More so than I would be against the Bucks and Raptors, both of whom the C's have shown they can handle.
Maybe my concern about a Philly matchup is higher than it should be, but my confidence against the top teams in the conference is so high that I don't want to have that 2013-14 Bruins "oh they'll beat anybody" mentality.
I'm afraid of the Sixers and I'm OK with that.