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The Celtics Own The Sixers

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - MAY 05: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers falls to the court after colliding with Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics during the second quarter in game three of the Eastern Conference Second Round Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center on May 05, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA — Absolutely, it was the funniest thing James Harden could possibly do in a playoff game for the Philadelphia 76ers. To make it even better, he did it twice. On two occasions Friday night against the Celtics, Harden drove to the rim with a chance at a layup and passed the ball.

This was funny because, well, two games earlier he’d scored 45 points and here he was passing up a layup. Basketball players usually like to score. It was funny because the one time it worked; Harden passed it out and De'Anthony Melton hit a three-pointer. But mostly it was funny because it reminded everyone in the stands of Ben Simmons’s famous refusal-to-shoot moment against the Hawks in the playoffs two years ago. That moment essentially led to the trade that sent Harden to Philadelphia.

Friday night’s game went about as well for the Sixers as it usually does against the Celtics in the playoffs: Boston led throughout and won handily, 114-101. It was an incredible frustrating night for fans in South Philadelphia. Before the game Joel Embiid was honored with the MVP award. He thanked his teammates. He thanked his parents. He thanked his mentor Luc Mbah a Moute. His little son ran out to celebrate with him at the pregame ceremony. And then after the game Embiid was so down he suggested that the NBA move the award ceremony to before the playoffs.

It’s not the ceremony's fault. The last time a Sixers player won MVP, Allen Iverson scored 52 points in a 121-88 win over the Raptors. But this is how things go for the Sixers in the playoffs against the Celtics. This year is the 21st time the 76ers and Celtics franchises have met in a playoff series, and Boston has won 13. Seven of those matchups, where the Sixers snagged three of their six victories, came when the Sixers were still the Syracuse Nationals. Those really shouldn’t count. A more accurate history of Philadelphia basketball futility comes from Bob Vetrone Jr., better known as Boop: Philadelphia pro basketball teams are 4-13 against the Celtics in the playoffs. The 76ers proper are 4-10.

I am too young to have seen the Sixers-Celtics battles in the '60s and the '80s. The Iverson/Lil G–era Sixers’ primary rivals were the Pacers. They had memorable series wins against the Raptors and Bucks. The Celtics were a first-round opponent in 2002, and… oh, man. It did not end well.

I was 19 the first time the Sixers let me down against the Celtics. I had just finished my sophomore year of college, and had started my internship at Comcast SportsNet’s website. (It was so long ago that we updated the site by editing HTML files and uploading them via FTP.) My first day on the job was Game 4 of the first round. The Sixers, down 2-1 in the five-game series, forced a deciding game with an 83-81 win. I have a vivid memory of my first experience covering the NBA, and it was not anything that happened on the court: Two security guards screamed in delight, bumping chests when Antoine Walker missed a three with four seconds left. “We still have a job!” they shouted.

It was a reasonable assumption for them to make. The Sixers had been to the NBA Finals the previous season. The 2001–02 season, however, was not as successful; the Sixers won just 43 games and were the six seed in the playoffs. But they had the same core players. Surely they’d have a shot to beat Boston and make another playoff run and give the security guards another home game. I was like those arena workers: I wanted the Sixers to keep winning so I could keep writing about Dikembe Mutombo’s defense, the sidebar story I filed in my first experience writing about pro sports. I was pumped.

Ah. The Sixers lost the deciding Game 5 120-87. They Sixers never led. Paul Pierce had 46 points. The high point of the game for the Sixers was when Derrick McKey followed up a missed Derrick Coleman three with a layup to tie the game at 37. The Celtics hit 19 of their 39 threes that night. It basically felt like Game 2 of this series, only it ended the Sixers’ season.

As a huge Philadelphia sports dork, I have learned of previous disasters even if I didn’t see them. The first playoff meeting between the Sixers and Celtics ended terribly, famously. Bill Russell had turned the ball over when he hit a support wire for the basket inbounding the ball with five seconds left. He pounded the floor in frustration. “This was the end of a dynasty,” the Philadelphia Daily News’ Jack Kiser wrote. It wasn’t. Hal Greer threw it away on the inbounds.

They run the clip any time the teams meet in the playoffs. Sixers inbounding, five seconds left, “Havlicek stole the ball!”, Sam Jones dribbling downcourt, the fans rushing the players and putting them on their shoulders, Russell planting a big kiss on Havlicek. It was nearly two decades before I was born and it still makes me angry every time I see it.

“I knew we were going to win,” Wilt Chamberlain said postgame. ”Sure, we had to make the shot, but there was no doubt in our minds but what it would go in. We were meant to win this one. I could feel it in my bones. Now … well, I can’t describe how I feel. All empty and sick to see it all end like this.”

The Sixers went 1-3 against the Celtics in the playoffs in the 1960s, though they did win a title. The Sixers also won a title in 1983, their most recent. The teams met in the Eastern Conference four times, and the Sixers had their best decade against the C’s with a 2-2 record. But the losses were brutal. “The Ultimate Insult,” read the back cover of the Philadelphia Daily News on May 4, 1981. “In the wake of the 76ers’ latest playoff disappointment,” Dick Weiss wrote, “the status of pro basketball in Philadelphia is just an endless series of questions without answers.” Is it any different now? Will it be any different when the Celtics play the Sixers today? I actually think I know the answer to these questions.

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