O’Sullivan: NBA edition of Boston-Philly rivalry accelerates

  • Boston guard Kyrie Irving (11) goes up for a layup while being defended by Philadelphia’s Jerryd Bayless (left) and Joel Embiid during a game between the Celtics and 76ers at O2 Arena in London in January. The teams are in good position to see each other deep in the playoffs for years to come. Ap file

  • Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons, of Australia, goes up to dunk during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Friday, April 6, 2018, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola) Chris Szagola

  • FILE - In this Dec. 7, 2017, file photo, Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid, of Cameroon, dunks during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers, in Philadelphia. When the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers take center stage in London on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018, they’ll be a little more on the line than trying to get a victory and the league spreading its global brand. There may be a few All-Star votes to be had. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola, File) Chris Szagola

  • FILE - In this April 2, 2017, file photo, Boston Celtics' Jaylen Brown dunks during the second half of the NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks, in New York. Sixty NBA draft hopefuls will hear their name called as members of the 2017 rookie class. For many of the top picks it will mark the start of the transition from college underclassman to instant millionaire.(AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File) Seth Wenig

Monitor staff
Sunday, April 08, 2018

Their weeks veered in opposite directions. The “season lost to injury” narrative was cemented for the Boston Celtics, who also have to wonder about the long-term health of Kyrie Irving’s left knee. The Philadelphia 76ers pushed their winning streak to 13 games, pushing their contender timetable forward along with it.

Their current news cycles are spinning apart, but their long-term futures are linked. LeBron James may remain king of the Eastern Conference this season, but the heir apparent lies somewhere between Philly and Boston, and we’re not talking about the Knicks.

Despite losing Irving for the season, the Celtics are still poised to take the conference throne with the expected return of Irving and Gordon Hayward, the expected growth of the already good Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, more draft picks on the way and a shrewd brain trust in Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge. That’s a lot of assets, but the Sixers could have two aces to trump them all if Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid reach peak potential.

Both teams are good right now with a chance to be great as soon as next season, but there’s something better than both in the Atlantic Division, and we’re not talking about the first-place Raptors. We’re talking about the Boston-Philly rivalry, NBA style.

As good as both teams are, the sum of their parts in the form of a rivalry could be greater. Watching Irving handle, Simmons pass, Tatum blossom and Embiid explode is already amazing, watching them do it against each other with trips to the Finals and places in history on the line would be even better. There’s a real chance that will happen, and after last week it might happen sooner rather than later.

With Irving and Hayward – stars in their prime – leading the way into this season, it seemed the Celtics had a head start the Sixers wouldn’t be able to make up for a few years. Injuries stopped Boston from speeding ahead, and the hyper acceleration of Simmons, and Embiid’s transcendence, have made up the ground the Celtics did gain. Now, the team’s long-term timelines match – the 2018 Playoffs will be a learning experience and the 2019 Finals will be the realistic goal for both teams … as long as Irving’s knee, Hayward’s ankle and Embiid’s face cooperate.

The latest on Irving is a bacterial infection in the knee that required Sunday’s season-ending surgery and months of recovery. But the knee troubles go back further than that, which creates the long-term concern for Boston.

Irving had to miss Game 1 of the 2015 Finals with tendonitis in his left knee. Things got worse in Game 2 when he fractured the left kneecap, forcing him to miss the rest of the series and undergo surgery that kept him out for more than five months.

The knee acted up again in the spring of 2017 and Irving missed time during the regular season. He felt more discomfort in his knee this March, missed multiple games and eventually had a procedure done to remove a wire in his knee on March 24. Finally, the infection was detected and Irving underwent the surgery to clean it out on Saturday, which will require four to six months of recovery.

Add all that to the gruesome injury that ended Hayward’s season after just five minutes, season-ending injuries to Daniel Theis and (perhaps) Marcus Smart, and there’s a whiff of a curse on this Celtics team. But both Irving, 26, and Hayward, 28, are young. Hayward seems to be on track with his recovery, and while Irving’s knee history is troubling, at least it’s just a string of nagging injuries and not a string of blown-out ligaments.

Most teams would still love to trade places with the Celtics. They’re waiting for two young stars to heal while two more young stars (Tatum and Brown) get valuable playing minutes to accelerate their process. Their brilliant coach (Stevens) coaxes maximum production from his team and a brilliant executive (Ainge) outmaneuvers the rest of the league and has built a war chest of assets that includes three first-round picks from other teams in the next two years (Lakers 2018/Sacramento 2019, Clippers 2019 and Grizzlies 2019).

Most teams would trade places with Boston, but probably not the Sixers. Philly is the hottest team in the league despite losing Embiid on March 28 after a collision with Markelle Fultz (exhibit A in Ainge’s outmaneuvering case) fractured his orbital bone. The 13th win in Philly’s current streak came on Saturday as Simmons won a triple-double duel with James to give the Sixers a 132-130 win over Cleveland and put them a half-game ahead of the fourth-place Cavs in the Eastern Conference standings.

The team ahead of Philadelphia is Boston. If the standings stay that way and both teams win in the first round, they would meet in the second round of the playoffs. Even without all the main characters, a playoff series could crank up the Boston-Philly rivalry. The history is all there.

The two cities just clashed in the Super Bowl, the NHL edition is known for its bloodlust and the hoops version has deep roots.

The Celtics and Lakers captured the national spotlight, but as a child and Celtics fan of the 1980s, the Sixers always felt like Boston’s true rival to me. They played against each other all the time. The fans on both sides were vicious, like the players, just look at Julius Erving’s fingers wrapped around Larry Bird’s throat.

The Celtics-Sixers thing goes back even further, to the 1960s, when Bill Russell and Sam Jones were battling Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer. It was the Sixers, not the Lakers, who broke Boston’s string of eight straight NBA titles by beating the Celtics in the 1967 Eastern finals.

Russell, Chamberlain, Bird, Erving – these are giant footsteps to follow. The current Celtics and Sixers have a long way to go before they reach that level, but there’s a chance – a chance – that another chapter worthy of this rivalry is about to be written.

If it doesn’t happen this year, just wait. The Boston-Philly rivalry is going to light up the NBA for years to come.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)