Joel Embiid gives the 76ers an advantage over the Celtics, who simply might not have the talent to reach the next level, while Philadelphia is on the rise. Chris Szagola/Associated Press


Pity the Celtics. Or, don’t pity them, because pitying them would feel a little bit like pitying a hedge fund. Laughing at them doesn’t really work either. They might be 10 games behind the 76ers in the Eastern Conference, but they’re hardly a disaster. They’ve won at least 48 games in each of the last five seasons. Three years ago, they came within a game of the NBA Finals. They are a good team with a good coach and plenty of staying power. Problem is, they aren’t a great team, and they can’t seem to figure out how to become one.

What do you get for the team that has everything except the one thing money can’t buy? It’s a question that loomed large after the Sixers cruised to a 106-96 win over the Celtics on Wednesday night. Before the season, you would have circled this as a game with significant playoff implications. Instead, you got Luke Kornet against Joel Embiid.

This was the difference on Wednesday night, and it is the difference in both teams’ future. One had a player that the other could not guard. The other one did not. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are All-Stars, not MVPs. They are not forces of nature. They are not unguardable. They are not Embiid.

We’ve arrived at an interesting moment in the inseparable trajectories of these two organizations. In October 2018, Embiid famously dismissed the idea of a Celtics-Sixers rivalry by noting that the Celtics “always kick our (butt).” Two-and-a-half years later, he is the singular reason that the balance of power has shifted.


Philadelphia center Joel Embiid, right, dunks over Boston’s Luke Kornet. Charles Krupa/Associated Press

That will come as an uncomfortable thought to the legions of skeptics who have spent the last four years citing the Celtics as evidence of Sam Hinkie’s failure as Sixers general manager. They’ll deal with that discomfort the way people often do – by pretending it doesn’t exist. They’ll point to the fact that the Celtics have bounced the Sixers from the playoffs in two of the last three postseasons, winning eight of nine games in the process. They’ll point to the fact that Boston ended up in the Eastern Conference finals in both of those seasons, and that they’ve been one of the last two teams standing in the East in three of Embiid’s first four seasons as a pro. They’ll note that the Sixers’ last trip to the conference finals was 2001, when Embiid was 7 years old.


At the same time, history doesn’t name bridges after men who finished in fourth place. And if the goal is winning championships, which organization would you rather be?

Three years ago, Danny Ainge was the answer to the folly of The Process. The Celtics general manager had drafted and traded his way into contention without four seasons of unmitigated losing. Boston had drafted Tatum and Brown while amassing a massive stockpile of future draft picks. They’d signed Gordon Hayward and Al Horford and would only continue building.

The Process? That didn’t qualify as building. The Sixers didn’t need a world class architect to finish in last place. Besides, all they had to show for the ordeal was Embiid and Ben Simmons. Congrats, Sam. You simply lost enough to draft them.

Or so the skeptics think.

Regardless of what happened in last year’s playoffs, or the ones two years before that, the Sixers at the current juncture are closer to a title than the Celtics. They are closer in actuality, by virtue of their conference-leading 35-16 record, and they are closer in essence, because they have the type of centerpiece player around which championships are built.

Say what you will about Embiid’s health, or the position that he plays, or his meager postseason resume. On Wednesday night, you saw the impact that his presence has on every aspect of the game. While it was not his finest statistical game – 35 points on 9-of-19 shooting, plus-12 in the box score – he was a problem without a solution. Robert Williams, Tacko Fall, Kornet – they did not have a chance.

“It’s a great intensity that he’s carried in through the year,” Sixers Coach Doc Rivers said of his big man, who was playing his second game since returning from a knee injury. “Walking out, he said to me, ‘I’m back.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I noticed.’ ”

The Celtics? They’re currently the eighth seed, and without much room to pivot. They need a superstar like the one the Sixers have, the one Hinkie did whatever it took to find.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story