Boston-Philly is not a rivalry … not yet anyhow


BOSTON — The Boston Celtics will spend Christmas Day with the Philadelphia 76ers. It’s a matchup of division rivals with a storied history, and a rematch of recent playoff combatants. Given both team’s aspirations for premium placement in a top-heavy Eastern Conference this season, it would be very tempting to use the “R” word to describe Tuesday’s holiday showdown.

But this is NOT a rivalry.

Joel Embiid noted as much two months ago after Boston throttled the Sixers on opening night. The typically boisterous Embiid said in the aftermath, "This is not a rivalry. I don’t know our record against them, but it’s pretty bad. They always kick our ass.”

During games he’s played against Boston in his career, Embiid is 2-8. He’s lost five of the last six meetings, including Boston’s five-game triumph over Philadelphia in the confetti-filled East semifinals last year.

A little friction between the two teams might help promote a true rivalry, but even trash-talking Embiid has typically defaulted to praise for Celtics big man Al Horford (and his more common vocal target, Aron Baynes, is out with a broken hand). For his part, Horford has often volleyed Embiid's praise, including in the lead-up to Tuesday’s tilt.

"I have a lot of respect for Joel. I’ve always been a big fan of his game, and just how he is,” said Horford. "He’s a guy that you want to see play, and I feel like you want him around you, right? 

"So it’s one of those games we are lucky to be one of the few teams playing on Christmas Day, and it is nationally televised, so it’s one of those fun games, and we’re here at home, so it’s good for us.”

There’s a video from last year’s All-Star game in which a chatty Embiid is heard talking to Horford about who deserves the NBA crown of greatest of all-time. Horford doesn’t say much, but is clearly amused by Embiid’s ramblings.

So when a reporter asked Horford about Embiid’s penchant for on-court talk, Horford just smiled and referenced that All-Star exchange.

"I shared a little bit with him at All-Star last year and I thought he was a great guy,” said Horford. "He had me laughing a lot.”

Laughs don’t make rivalries. Nor does mutual respect, which flows heavily between these two teams, especially among the coaches, as Brett Brown and Brad Stevens routinely gush about each other.

That’s not to say that both sides don’t have motivation to win and assert themselves on Tuesday. The Sixers are coming off a solid trouncing of a shorthanded Raptors squad on Saturday. A holiday win in Boston would help the Sixers gain respect as a true contender, a title they’ve been deprived as most eyes in the East have been on the Raptors, Celtics, and Bucks.

Boston, with its uneven play for much of the season, finds itself 2 games back of both the Sixers and Pacers in the East standings. A win Tuesday might help the Celtics start making a move after lingering in that fifth spot in the East for an uncomfortably long stretch, including for most of its recent eight-game winning streak.

The big wild card is whether Philadelphia’s early season addition of Jimmy Butler can add some spice to the matchup. Celtics players showered Butler with praise and, as Marcus Morris said that, even before Butler’s arrival, “it’s definitely been a dogfight,” against the Sixers.

Said Kyrie Irving, "I’m looking forward to the challenge. Any time we get the chance to go up against the best of the best … I’m up for it and I know my teammates will be up for it as well.”

So much of the chatter when the teams met in the postseason last year centered on the potential to resume an old rivalry. Like nicknames, you can’t just pick your rival. It’s nothing that can be manufactured. It just happens.

The Celtics and Sixers have a common goal to be great. It could eventually lead to an honest-to-goodness rivalry. It’s not there yet but every meeting — especially one on a big stage like Christmas — has a chance to help it get to that point.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.


Contact Us