We needed this.
The Philadelphia 76ers spent all season seemingly saving their best for the playoffs, but it’s become clear their best isn’t good enough to win a title this season. Now that Ben Simmons is out, the team won’t even be favorites to make it out of the first round. It was starting to feel like there was nothing to play for. But with the Sixers officially facing the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, the games will finally matter.
It wouldn’t be this exciting if the Sixers were playing the Indiana Pacers. Even against the Miami Heat, with a chance to stick it to Jimmy Butler, it would still feel like the Sixers were set up for heartbreak (they were 1-3 against the Heat this season, with two of those losses coming by under five points).
In a world with not much to do, Sixers vs. Celtics is the series we needed. A nearly 60-year-old rivalry. Seeking revenge for the 2018 playoff beating. Literally anything to justify the Al Horford signing. The Sixers went 3-1 against the Celtics this year, including one win without Joel Embiid. And with the Celtics moving away from Enes Kanter and giving heavy center minutes to smaller guys like Daniel Theis and Robert Williams, the door is open for Embiid to either dominate inside or have plenty of kick-outs to open shooters on the perimeter.
I hate the Celtics. We all hate the Celtics. Every time Jayson Tatum plays well for our biggest rival, I can’t help but think of the Markelle Fultz trade. Every time Horford plays poorly, I can’t help but think about how Danny Ainge was going to hand him a terrible contract until Elton Brand stepped in and offered him an even worse one. I have been apathetic about this Sixers team all year, but I cannot be apathetic about a series against Boston. More importantly, I don’t think Joel Embiid can be either. It’s clear losing in five to the Celtics in his first career post-season sticks with him (he made a point to tell Jimmy Butler how important it was to beat Boston last year), and an engaged Embiid can singlehandedly take the Sixers from sloppy and unwatchable to dominant and fun.
The Sixers can win this series if Embiid plays well and they hit some shots, and winning against Boston means something in a way beating other teams just wouldn't. Being locked into the six seed also means the Sixers wouldn’t have to play the Milwaukee Bucks until the conference finals (if they somehow made it that far). And of course, whenever the Sixers lose, it's because Ben Simmons was hurt, and the bubble doesn’t count anyway.
All season, the Sixers had nothing to play for and everything to lose. It was a painful view of the team that led the wins to feel like losses and the losses to feel far too frequent. With a series against the Celtics, and all the storylines that come with it, the Sixers now have something very real to play for. And with their franchise point-forward out, they have absolutely nothing to lose.
We wanted Boston. We needed Boston. The Sixers can win this series, and with low expectations, I’m all in all over again.