The Sixers were understandably amped as they prepped for yesterday’s match against the vaunted Celtics. It wasn’t simply that they faced East rivals with an identical 5-1 slate off the blocks. More importantly, they wanted to make a statement against their tormentors in the 2023 Playoffs; they led three to two in the conference semifinals, only to lose the next two contests they seemed to be on the verge of claiming in the crunch. For all the pitfalls of attaching too much importance to early-season victories, they moved to prevail in front of 19,953 fans — and not just because they looked to preserve a hitherto-unblemished record at the Wells Fargo CenterIndeed, the Sixers set out to prove that all is right in their part of the National Basketball Association. Never mind that they’re still acclimatizing to the system of new head coach Nick Nurse, and that they no longer have the services of 10-time All-Star James Harden. And who cares if the Celtics loaded up on talent in the offseason, taking in such notables as Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday? They set out to show that they can legitimately rub elbows with the preseason favorites.
When the battlesmoke cleared, the Sixers did manage to turn expectation into reality. To their obvious delight, they found themselves on the right end of the score at the final buzzer. And, once again, they were led by reigning Most Valuable Player Joel Embiid — ably backstopped by revelation Tyrese Maxey, pickup Kelly Oubre, Jr., and old reliable Tobias Harris. They were particularly effective in the middle quarters, turning a five-point deficit into a double-digit advantage heading into the payoff period.
The Sixers did have a scare in the last couple of minutes, blanking on four straight possessions to let the Celtics back into the set-to. After a timeout, however, they craftily milked the clock and put some measure of distance after Embiid’s 18-footer found the bottom of the net with 39.1 ticks left. In other words, they made sure there would be no repeat of their late collapses in the immediate past postseason. And through they did not say it out loud, there could be no glossing over Harden’s absence in the triumph.
The Sixers could not hide their pleasure at the outcome, and with reason. Embiid spoke about the additions the Celtics and Bucks made, and acknowledged that the opposition “got a lot better.” What he did not say — or did not need to say — was that their subtractions have enabled them to keep pace. There remains a lot of hoops to be played, but, if nothing else, yesterday gave them hope.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and human resources management, corporate communications, and business development.