Game Preview | Mission in London: Turn Tide Against Rivals

by Brian Seltzer Reporter

Scene Setter:

LONDON - The 76ers and Boston Celtics have been waging battle since 1949, a period during which the former has had over 540 meetings with the latter, the most times its faced any opponent in the NBA.

There were the Wilt-Russell wars for Eastern Conference supremacy in the 1960s, followed 20 years later by the heydays of the Erving-Bird bouts.

Now, with the historic series between the Atlantic Division foes well into the 21st century, a longstanding rivalry appears to be on the cusp of intensifying yet again. But a true renewal can only happen under one condition, according to Ben Simmons.

“We got to start winning,” the Sixers’ point man said Wednesday.

In the midst of making a legitimate All-Star bid, all while compiling a strong mid-season case for Rookie of the Year, Simmons very much represents the wave of high-grade, youthful talent that’s washed over both franchises in recent season, as do other 25-and-under standouts like Joel Embiid, Robert Covington, Dario Saric from the Sixers, and Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum from the Celtics.

Thursday’s clash at The O2 Arena (3:00 PM EST; NBA TV, NBC Sports Philadelphia, 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network) in the NBA London Game 2018 will mark the Sixers’ third match-up of the season with Boston. The Cs took the first two, and have won 13 of the previous 14 pairings.

That’s a trend the Simmons wants to change, beginning with Thursday’s sold-out affair, for which tickets are going for a minimum of £450 (north of $600 American) on the secondary market.

“It’s going to be fun. I think it’s going to be a big game.”

Reversing recent course against the Celtics figures to be no easy task for the Sixers. As of Thursday morning, Boston claimed the top record in the East, and second-best overall in the entire league.

Emblematic of the Celts’ collective success this season and the completeness of the team is its heady 5.2 net rating, good for fourth in the NBA. Where the Cs really shine is on the defensive end, as they boast the league’s number one defensive rating, at 99.7.

Take Boston’s young core, highlighted by Irving, Brown, and Tatum; throw in a proven, unheralded All-Star in Al Horford; and sprinkle the roster with noteworthy complements like Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart; and a formidable opponent is what you’ve got.

“They’re a well-coached team that plays hard, and plays together,” T.J. McConnell said this week.

Right, there’s Boston’s head coach too, as McConnell astutely pointed out. The Celtics’ won-loss record has improved in each of its four full seasons under Brad Stevens. The club’s performance has been impressive so far this winter, given that marquee free agent signing Gordon Hayward went down with a season-ending injury.

“It’s been one of the surprising things in the NBA, especially given how their first five of the season went,” said JJ Redick. “Kyrie’s been great, Horford’s been great. Their young guys have all made big leaps.”

In his first campaign with Boston, former No. 1 pick and Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving has been his typical, potent self. Even while being used in isolation less frequently this season, he remains one of the league’s most dangerous one-on-one players, averaging 24.1 points per game.

Horford, on the other hand, has proven to be the straw that stirs the Celtics drink.

“Let’s go to the offense first, the fact that he can pick and pop and make threes is a game-changer as a five. He really makes you second guess how to guard him in a pick-and-roll,” said Brett Brown. “Defensively, he’s a man, he’s solid. He leads the charge. He really has a lot of responsibility. I think ‘elite solid,’ ‘All-Star solid’ are the words I think of when I think of him defensively.”

The Cs’ parts, and the sum of them, will require a best effort Thursday, but such is the path the Sixers will need to take to build  their climb up the standings.

“It’s been a rivalry for quite some time, and I don’t think it’s ever going to go away,” McConnell said.

Based on the trajectories of both organizations, it increasingly feels that way.

Opponent Outlook:

The Boston Celtics (33-10) will hit the hardwood Thursday amidst their latest surge, having beaten quality teams like Houston, Cleveland, and Minnesota.

While Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, and youngsters Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have gotten the lion's share of the attention this season, Brett Brown has been particularly impressed with how members of the Cs’ surrounding cast have played, including Terry Rozier (9.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.0 apg) and Marcus Smart (9.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 4.8 apg, 1.3 spg).

“I give them credit,” said Brown. “Their draft picks have turned out to be good players.”

Follow Along:

Video: NBC Sports Philadelphia / NBC Sports Philadelphia app

Audio: 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network