The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers is the NBA's best rivalry - yes, the best.
Better than Celtics and Lakers. Better than Knicks and Pacers. Better than LeBron and ever-evolving list of rivals.
On Tuesday, the two teams that have played each other more times than any other teams in the playoffs will renew that rivalry in a game that could have huge implications on playoff seeding in the East and beyond.
Every important figure in Celtics and 76ers team history has played a part in the battle between these two historic franchises. Philadelphia and Boston have met in the playoffs 20 times - the most in playoff history. The next closest playoff matchup is 15 between the Knicks and Celtics . While New York and Boston's total number of playoff matchups comes close, the stakes and pressure can't hang with that of Sixers-Celtics. 13 of the 20 times the 76ers and Celtics have played it was for a birth in the NBA Finals - could this year be 14?
The Early Years
There's an argument to be made that Wilt Chamberlain vs Bill Russell is the greatest individual rivalry in the history of the sport. Of their eight postseason meetings including a run of six straight years from 1964 to 1969, half came with Chamberlain in a 76ers jersey.
It was Wilt's 76ers who finally put an end to the Celtics' dominance of 11 straight finals appearances and eight straight NBA titles by eliminating them in the Eastern Conference Finals in just five games.
They met again a year later in the 1968 Eastern Conference Finals and after going down 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, Russell and his Celtics came off the mat to complete the first 3-1 series come back to regain Eastern Conference supremacy en-route to their 10th championship.
That loss had a huge impact on Philadelphia. In addition to yet another heartbreak at the hand of the Celtics, it was also marked the end of the Wilt Chamberlain era in Philly as that loss (among other things) paved the way for his ensuing trade in the offseason to the Los Angeles Lakers.
It would be over a decade until the rekindling of this fierce rivalry between the titans of the East.
The Golden Age
It took a while for the rivalry to be renewed but in the early 1980s, from 80 to 82 it was once again the Celtics and 76ers battling for the right to represent the East in the Finals - this time with Larry Bird and "Dr. J" Julius Erving as the faces of their respective franchises.
The 76ers won two of the three meetings in that stretch but the one time the Celtics won in 1981 many consider it the greatest playoff series of all-time. Two of the seven games were decided by a single point - three of the seven were decided by two points and the Celtics once again rallied from down 3-1 to force and win a seventh and deciding game.
Philadelphia eventually had the last laugh in that three-year stretch, and while it celebrated a game seven blowout win in the 1982 East Finals on the parquet floor, the Boston crowd let the 76ers know what to do next.
Chants of "Beat L.A." - perhaps the most famous in any NBA arena - echoed throughout the Boston Garden with Celtics faithful actually cheering on the Sixers to finish the job in the NBA Finals. If that's not a show of respect between rivals, I'm not sure what else qualifies.
(NOTE: the 76ers lost in the Finals to the Lakers before returning to sweep them the following season).
Fast forward to the early 2000's with Allen Iverson and Paul Pierce leading the charge in the 2002 playoffs an epic five-game first round series which saw the Celtics set a record nine in the fourth quarter of the fifth and deciding game to eliminate the 76ers.
In 2012, with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett now joining Pierce to form a "Big 3", Boston still needed seven games to dispatch of an Iverson-less Philadelphia team that featured Andre Iguodala and a young Jrue Holiday. No team in that series won back-to-back games and it was another loss that had huge ramifications for the 76ers franchise as it was that playoff exit that started "the Process".
The two teams haven't met for a trip to the NBA Finals since 1985 when the Celtics cruised to a gentleman's 4-1 sweep over the 76ers, but could this be the year we see them battle again for a trip to the dance in June?
As it sits right now, Boston and Philadelphia could finish anywhere inside the top five in a tightly contested East.
Philly is coming on strong after adding more pieces to the puzzle following a somewhat rocky start. The trade for Jimmy Butler is paying dividends now but he's someone who figures to be more valuable in a seven-game series than he is on a night to night basis in the 82-game marathon. The addition of Tobias Harris at the trade deadline has put Philly in a position to claim the East's best starting five.
Joel Embiid started the season putting up monstrous stat lines as he makes an argument for best big man in the league and Ben Simmons has finally seemed to find his groove in what is just his second full NBA season.
For Boston, they haven't lived up to the pre-season hype as they welcomed back Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward into the fold. Brad Stevens at times has struggled to find the right combination to close games and the players have at times looked lost without a truly defined role. They passed on making a move at the deadline and will have to look within their talented locker room to find the source to a long playoff run.
On Tuesday, however, both teams will be looking to not only get a win but maybe send a message to the rest of the league who will no doubt be watching that they're better than they've shown through the first part of the season.
For both teams, it's fitting that to get back on track they have to go through each other on the biggest stage of the NBA season, with the shadows of the legends of past casting over them.
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