After dispatching the Miami Heat in five games in the first round in their first career postseason appearance, the Philadelphia 76ers’ youngsters will open the Eastern Conference semi-finals on Tuesday in Boston against the Celtics.
All those banners hanging from the Garden rafters.
All that history on the parquet floor.
All that bad blood between the two cities.
A civic rivalry that dates back to the Revolutionary War era came of age on the basketball court with Wilt Chamberlain leading the Philadelphia Warriors, and later the 76ers, against Bill Russell’s Celtics in the 1960s. Larry Bird and Julius Erving picked it up in the 1980s.
Then there was the Allen Iverson-led 76ers that went to the NBA Finals in 2001 but lost to Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker’s Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals the following year.
The franchises have met 19 times in the playoffs (though only three times in the past 33 years), with Boston holding a 12-7 edge.
Two years after winning just 10 games, the rebuilding “Process” is paying off for the 76ers.
Simmons, the No. 1 overall pick in 2016 before missing all of last season, averaged 18.2 points and 10.6 rebounds against the Heat — both improvements over his regular-season numbers.
Celtics veteran Al Horford is fully aware of the problem the young Aussie presents, going as far as saying his team had to be more “solid” against Simmons than it was in a first round matchup with Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“It’s different in the sense that Ben just has that ability to really distribute the ball really well,” Horford said, after the Celtics held their first film session in preparation Game 1. “His ability to just read defences — it’s just impressive for a rookie to have that kind of poise and do that. With Giannis, it was more of him going one-on-one, and trying to go score. Simmons will try to do a little bit of everything.”
“More than probably any opponent that we’ve faced, we have to stay as solid as we can,” Horford added. “Because he’s a very smart player and he’ll take advantage of anything that you give him.”
Boston has a host of options to guard Simmons, including Semi Ojeleye, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart.
But Celtics coach Brad Stevens threw another name in the mix — Australia big man Aron Baynes, who he described as “one of the best defenders in the league”.
“I thought some of our best possessions against Giannis were with Baynes guarding him,” Stevens said. “Obviously Semi more than anyone, but Baynes is able to move laterally, keep guys in front, make them take shots with him between them and the basket, and that’s what you ultimately want.”
Embiid, the third overall pick in 2014, returned after missing the first two games of the playoffs and averaged 18.7 points and 10.3 rebounds in three wins over Miami.
“They’re super-talented,” Stevens said. “That’s what happens when you’re in the NBA playoffs. It’s fun.”
The Celtics held Antetokounmpo to zero fast break points in Game 7 of their first-round series.
They know that transition defence will also be a key against Philadelphia, which was one of the best in the NBA on the break.
“In transition, they just make you pay,” Celtics centre Al Horford said. “They just present a whole different challenge.”
Stevens said Brown still had some soreness from a hamstring injury he sustained in Game 7 and is doubtful for Game 1 against the Sixers. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2016 draft, Brown averaged 14.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game this season.
He said on Saturday he would be back. “Whatever it takes, I wouldn’t miss this series for the world,” Brown said.
The Celtics are already without stars Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, as well as Daniel Theis.