Boston Celtics

The Sixers are in need of a rivalry and the Celtics are the perfect foe

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The Sixers are in need of a rivalry and the Celtics are the perfect foe

Even though the Eagles won the Super Bowl this past February, an essential element of Philadelphia sports fandom remains being irrationally angry. I still freak out when a ref calls a roughing the passer penalty on Michael Bennett. Gabe Kapler made me constantly throw my Phillies hat in disgust as his team collapsed down the stretch this summer. Philadelphians are untethered and their rage knows no bounds, but it’s a relief when all that anger can be directed in one direction instead of just crying, “Woe is me,” and assuming the world is against us all.  

That’s where having a rival comes in.

A rivalry has always felt like an essential part of fandom to me, but the Sixers have lacked one for decades and there’s been a void in my Sixers-loving heart. To be an Eagles fan is to hate Dallas. To be a Flyers fan is to hate the Penguins. To be a Phillies fan is to despise the Mets. Who were Sixers fans supposed to hate my whole life?

I am a 24-year-old South Philadelphian. There are only faint glimmers in my brain of watching Allen Iverson and the 2001 Sixers in the NBA Finals. I’ve never known a truly good Sixers team, much less one good enough to breed disdain from another fan base. That changed after a disappointing loss in the Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Celtics back in May. Now all I want to do is tell Sully from Southie that Dunkin’ Donuts is disgusting while knocking his flat-brimmed Patriots hat off his head.

I adore the “Philadelphia vs. Everybody” mentality, but there’s something especially satisfying about directing all your energy and contempt towards a single fanbase. The Sixers, and their fans in turn, are now aiming at a shamrock-shaped target. There’s larger history at play, both recent and not so recent, when it comes to hating the Celtics.

Bill Russell dueled, and almost always got the best of, Wilt Chamberlain throughout the ‘60s. Andrew Toney ascended to legendary status in Sixers lore as “The Boston Strangler” with a 34-point effort in Game 7 of the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals. Julius Erving and Larry Bird choked one another on-court in November 1984, inciting a violent melee that included Kevin McHale and a rookie Charles Barkley.

That’s also before getting to the curious case of Markelle Fultz, who will be perpetually linked with Jayson Tatum.

Trading the pick Boston used on Tatum, who torched the Sixers for 23 points on Opening Night, and a juicy, top-1 protected 2019 Sacramento Kings first rounder makes last summer’s swap look ridiculously bad in its own right. The fact that Fultz still looks overwhelmed and gun-shy despite all the hoopla that came from training with Drew Hanlen all summer only makes matters worse. Tatum is going to make an All-Star team within two years, if not sooner. Fultz isn’t even ready to be in the Sixers’ second half rotation against playoff teams. This is the worst NBA trade of the decade with the potential for it be an all timer.

Tatum makes my blood boil, especially given the grossly premature victory lap Sixers fans, myself included, took after the Sixers acquired Fultz in 2017. We thought we finally got one over on good ol’ Danny Ainge and his “warchest of assets.” Tatum turning into a 6-8 version of young Kobe Bryant wasn’t something any Sixers fan expected.

One of my favorite television shows at the moment is American Horror Story: Apocalypse. The series’ portrayal of hell is a given person’s worst moment being repeated on loop for the rest of eternity. If I go to hell, I will be sitting on my living room couch drinking a room temperature Miller Lite while watching Jayson Tatum crossover Joel Embiid before draining a jumper as Markelle Fultz sits on the bench with a blank stare on his face.

Watching Aron Baynes sink three-pointers in May and again on Opening Night makes me want to take my dog on a one-hour walk, delete Twitter off my phone forever and then ignore all my family and work responsibilities. He’s a 6-10 Australian mammoth of a human being. I hate him with every fiber of my being.

But I also love him. I love that he exists and looks like a knockoff James Bond villain. I love that Joel Embiid derides him for his man bun on Twitter. I love that I will boo and yell, screaming my lungs out the first time he steps on the court at the Wells Fargo Center this season.

After that season-opening loss to Boston, Embiid said that there actually isn’t a rivalry between the Sixers and Celtics because “they always kick our ass.” I’m going to disagree with the big fella. It’s a rivalry because the Sixers are so close to beating the Celtics. The East is theirs for the taking if they want it. They can have the two best players on the court against the Celtics at any given time. It’s a rivalry because my name is literally Shamus Clancy and Brad Stevens’ smug baby face still makes me hate an Irish-themed team. It’s a rivalry because every back-breaking Marcus Smart three-pointer makes me want to grab my Allen Iverson bobblehead and smash it into a hundred pieces.

Every hero needs an adversary. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid need Jayson Tatum and Aron Baynes as much as Batman needs The Joker and The Riddler. Despite Opening Night being such a frustrating loss, a part of me is still okay with it. I’m happy that the stakes are so high with the Sixers for the first time in over a decade. I want to breathe Celtics hatred for the next seven months before watching the Sixers defeat Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals next May. I want to hear 20,000 Celtics fans in the TD Garden scream at Simmons and Embiid as the Sixers slay this green dragon on their quest for an NBA championship. They can then toss their “SHOOT A 3 COWARD” shirts in the harbor.

After being stuck in mediocrity and an afterthought for so long, it’s just refreshing to feel that emotional kick and rage I currently have for the Celtics. I don’t know if the Sixers truly have the depth right now to top Boston in a playoff series, but the day they do will be that much sweeter given the last five years for this franchise and the last five months of getting embarrassed by the Celtics.

Forget the jumper, Ben Simmons becoming an elite 2-way player

Forget the jumper, Ben Simmons becoming an elite 2-way player

Ben Simmons’ jump shot has been and will continue to be an obsession for Sixers fans.

But lost in that fixation is one fact some may be forgetting: Simmons is really freaking good.

There weren’t many positives from Tuesday’s season-opening loss to the Celtics. Actually, Simmons’ play might be the only positive. The reigning Rookie of the Year recorded 19 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists. If the Sixers didn’t shoot so poorly (19 percent from three, 39 overall), he would’ve easily recorded his 13th career triple-double.

What Simmons proved against a Boston team that stifled him throughout their series last season is that he’s more than capable of taking games over — even without a jumper. Without Simmons, the turnover-happy Sixers would’ve likely been blown out in the first half instead of trailing by only five.

The skills he showed off are at the level of only a few players in NBA history.

The court vision and awareness are off the charts.

This splitting of the defense in the open court is so special.

What’s impressive is that Simmons played 43 minutes and only turned the ball over three times. When you consider how often Simmons handles the basketball and how fast of a pace he plays, that’s actually pretty remarkable. 

It was also interesting to see Simmons post up more. He did so in the preseason, most notably in the game in Shanghai. In the first half of that game, Simmons posted up seven times. It led to the following: bucket, foul, an open Landry Shamet three (missed), foul, bucket, foul and foul. This could also be a thing that allows Simmons and Markelle Fultz to play more together (see story). It lets Fultz handle the ball more and put Simmons in more of a point forward role. 

And lost in the drubbing is that the Sixers actually played pretty well defensively. The Celtics shot just 40 percent and just 29 percent from three. Simmons played a large part in that. He was excellent on the ball and had active hands, recording four steals and two blocks. 

This may be the most underrated part of Simmons’ game. At just 22, he has a chance to become an elite defensive player. His size coupled with his quick feet make him a nightmare matchup on the offensive end. Those are also the qualities that could lead to him becoming a top echelon defender.

As far as the jumper goes, you can tell he’s making an effort. Simmons took three jumpers around the elbow area — all misses but they were all right there. He doesn’t need to hit threes or even shots from just inside the arc. He can get to that elbow area pretty much any time he wants. Despite the misses, this is a shot he just needs to keep taking.

The free throws are an issue. He hit just 5 of 11 free throws after shooting just 56 percent from the line last year. With his ability to play downhill and be aggressive around the basket, he needs to convert his opportunities from the charity stripe.

Simmons is already an elite player. Maybe if we take our attention off his jumper for two seconds, we’d see that he’s developing into one of the best two-way players in the league.

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Sixers find out again just how far they must go to reach Celtics' level

Sixers find out again just how far they must go to reach Celtics' level

BOX SCORE

Don’t tell Joel Embiid you’re not supposed to make snap judgments after one game.

“JJ (Redick) mentioned it earlier, this is not a rivalry,” Embiid said to reporters after the Sixers’ 105-87 season-opening loss to the Boston Celtics (see observations). “I don’t know our record against them but it’s pretty bad. They always kick our ass.”

Embiid’s right. This is a far cry from the early 1980s when the Sixers’ Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks and Moses Malone were trading NBA Finals appearances with the Celtics’ Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish 

These days, the Sixers get a cold shiver down their spine at the mere sight of the green monsters from Boston. The Sixers dropped nine of the 11 total meetings between the storied franchises last season and opened the 2018-19 campaign by getting blitzed during the second half of the latest defeat.

“I take it personal, especially when you come into the game and you have the whole world watching, national television and then we come and we play that bad,” Embiid said.

Playing poorly isn’t the most egregious thing. After all, you expect some level of sloppiness in the first game of a new season for both teams.

But it was the specific mistakes the Sixers made that really stood out as the performance looked like a replay of practically every loss to the C’s from a season ago.

The Sixers’ turnovers (16) were mostly unforced. Their primary long-range shooters — JJ Redick and Robert Covington — couldn’t get on track (combined 4 for 15 from three-point range).

Most importantly, the defense the Sixers spent all summer revamping was carved up when it mattered most and that was with Kyrie Irving shooting a miserable 2 of 14 from the floor.

“I think what they have are playmakers, shot takers. They score the ball,” head coach Brett Brown said. “So most of the schemes you end up in you’re challenged a little bit.”

For the Sixers, that challenge has appeared insurmountable. Still, they’re not ready to concede anything after Game No. 1.

“We’ve just got to keep working together,” Embiid said. “A lot of changes. We know we have the potential to get to where we want to and that’s the NBA Finals, but for that we’ve got to make the playoffs first. It’s going to be a long road, but I’m excited for the future.”

The Sixers can only keep selling that potential for so long. At some point, they’re going to have to prove it on the court against the Celtics.

There are 81 regular-season games left over the course of six months, but the clock is already counting down.

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