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Looking Back on This Season’s Sixers-Celtics Matchups

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Preparing for the would-be playoff series.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

If, by some miracle, the 2019-20 NBA season should resume, the league would likely have to begin with either the start of the playoffs, or a handful of regular season games in order to satiate the financial desires of the home arenas:

Any path to a return to play seems rather fraught with the danger attendant with the COVID-19 pandemic:

But since nearly every party involved seems determined to bring an on-court conclusion to this season, we ought to prepare as if there will be one.

Should the playoffs begin today, the 3 vs. 6 seed playoff matchup would pit the Philadelphia 76ers against the home Boston Celtics in the first round. It should be noted that, if the league mandated that teams play a number of regular season games before the postseason, the matchups could change. The Sixers currently own an identical record (39-26) with the 5-seed Indiana Pacers. The Pacers, though, hold the tiebreaker.

But let’s assume that the seeding remains unchanged.

Sixers-Celtics.

The teams would be ordered to play basketball against one another.

To wit, ‘basketball’ is “a game played between two teams of five players in which goals are scored by throwing a ball through a netted hoop fixed above each end of the court,” according to Oxford.

It’s been a while.

And so, with an eye toward that potential matchup, I thought it wise to take a look back at each of the four meetings between the Sixers and Celtics this season.


10|23|19 Opening Night. Sixers defeat Boston (at home), 107-93

This was a hell of a way to begin the season. The Wells Fargo Center was electric as the Sixers unveiled their new-look starting lineup against a vaunted rival.

The game had a little of everything: Joel Embiid was bloodied from an elbow to the face, Josh Richardson blocked Gordon Hayward and then screamed, Ben Simmons terrorized the C’s all night en route to a team-high 24 points.

This game, in particular, was especially heartening because of how the Sixers won. They won without a great Embiid performance: Jo scored only 15 points, playing only 23 minutes, as the Al Horford-at-center lineups held up with the Sixers star in foul trouble. Throughout the season prior, you’ll remember, the Sixers crumbled in epic proportions every time Embiid had to sit down.

Another encouraging sight was the Sixers’ defense against opposing guards, namely Celtics star Kemba Walker, who was hounded all night by Josh Richardson, Matisse Thybulle and Ben Simmons, scoring only 12 points on 4-of-18 shooting.

12|12|19 Sixers defeat Boston (in Boston), 115-109

In case you don’t remember, this game was amidst a stretch of time when Joel Embiid was talking openly about how much less “fun” he’d been having of late. That he’d been trying to fit in amongst the team’s new pieces, rather than focusing on dominating like he used to. I believe, this also came on the heels of being chided by Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley on Inside the NBA for not playing up to his capabilities.

Well, on national TV in Boston, Embiid silenced the doubters and had some fun. Over 36 minutes of playing time, the big man tallied 38 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, a block and went 12-of-14 from the free throw line. He abused Celtics big men Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter and carried the Sixers on his back, as they withstood an offensively-MIA Ben Simmons (7 points) and an absent Al Horford (sore left knee).

After the game, Embiid showed humility when talking to Shaq and Chuck on the postgame show, admitting that he needed to turn it on for the team to reach its championship aspirations. Brett Brown called it “one of his best games as a Sixer.”

01|09|20 Sixers defeat Boston (at home), 109-98

Hours prior to tipoff, the Sixers announced that Joel Embiid would be undergoing surgery on torn ligaments in his finger, after the finger had dislocated during a game versus the Oklahoma City Thunder. The team trotted out their patented ‘re-evaluated in two weeks’ statement when disclosing the plan for Embiid, but the news certainly veiled the ongoings with the team with a much darker hue.

Like many, after I heard the news, I figured we might as well chalk up the contest against Boston as a loss, and simply hoped the team could tread water for however long Embiid was out. I was wrong. Now the starting center, Al Horford stepped up against his former team with 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists. Ben Simmons rebounded from his paltry previous outing against Boston and put up 19 points and nine rebounds. The story for the Sixers, offensively, was Josh Richardson. The two-guard scored 29 points and dished seven assists, making all 10 of his attempted free throws.

It was a close game through three quarters, before the Sixers showed out in the fourth, outscoring Boston 32-18 in the final frame.

For the Celtics, Marcus Smart (who has never missed a shot against the Sixers) scored 25 points off the bench, but Ben Simmons and company kept Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown at bay, as the duo shot a combined 6-of-25 from the field.

Postgame, Brett Brown got Embiid on FaceTime, so that injured star could share in the team’s locker room celebration.

02|01|20 Sixers lose to Boston (in Boston), 116-95

This game sucked!

This was Embiid’s third game back from finger surgery. The week prior, the big man had returned to play the Golden State Warriors at home in the Sixers’ first game since the tragic passing of NBA icon Kobe Bryant. Embiid always found inspiration in Bryant and idolized him as a kid, so the feeling was he felt he couldn’t miss that game (and that ceremony), ready or not. For this game in Boston (and many that followed) he donned a bulky cast on his injured hand that surely affected his shot. The star went only 1-of-11 from the field — one of his worst outings in a Sixers uniform. Save for Ben Simmons (who scored 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting), the Sixers struggled across the board, as the team shot 37 percent from the field and 21 percent from 3-point range.

The Celtics’ fast-paced, physical style outclassed the listless Sixers. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum avenged their previous matchup with the Sixers, as they scored 32 and 25 points, respectively. This loss was the first of three damning, double-digit losses to Eastern Conference contenders prior to the trade deadline, as the team followed this up with losses to Miami and Milwaukee.


On the whole, I like the Sixers’ odds against Boston in a best-of-seven series. The Celtics really don’t have an answer for a healthy Embiid, other than to throw savvy double-teams at him and bait him into turnovers.

The Celtics have two great, young wings, but the Sixers employ some great perimeter defenders in Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle. The team would need to stay cognizant of Kemba Walker — the sparkplug guard is exactly the type of player who can really punish a team as big as the Sixers.

The most difficult part of this prospective series might be where it is played. As the 6-seed, the Sixers would need to win on the road in Boston in order to win the series. For a team as beatable on the road as they were unbeatable at home, that is certainly a dubious circumstance.

The Sixers have told us all year (both directly and indirectly) about how much this roster was built for the playoffs. They said they were built for the slowed-down, brutal, physical style of play in the springtime amongst the league’s best teams. This series would be the start of ‘put up or shut up’ time for Brett Brown and his high-priced roster.

Regardless, this would be an extremely intriguing postseason matchup given the team’s shared histories — recent and otherwise. Here’s hoping we get to see it.