This wasn’t Russell-Chamberlain, Bird-Erving, or Iverson-Pierce. The Celtics-76ers rivalry is on hiatus as both organizations “transition” this season in hopes of landing a franchise-changing first-round pick in June.
What transpired Wednesday night at TD Garden when the rebuilding Celtics hosted the rebuilding 76ers was a sometimes ghastly display of basketball between organizations hoping to return to prosperity and more than willing to sacrifice this season — or perhaps even next — to do it.
The 76ers are using players who are likely headed elsewhere before the trade deadline, or this summer. Evan Turner, the one who rattled in the deciding basket in Philadelphia’s 95-94 victory, is a restricted free agent. Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen will be unrestricted free agents, and they’re using this season to boost their marketability.
Players who are assured of staying are Hamilton native Michael Carter-Williams and ex-Everett High standout Nerlens Noel, who is expected to miss the entire season while recovering from surgery to repair a torn left anterior cruciate ligament.
And like the Celtics, the 76ers hired a neophyte coach in Brett Brown, who has a plethora of bright ideas about how to resurrect the franchise. There is excitement in Philadelphia, but it’s going to take patience.
“Leaving San Antonio was a hard thing,” said Brown, a former Spurs assistant. “I had been there for 12 years. We won 50 games every one of my years. We went to five NBA Finals, won four of them. Life was good and secure. I wasn’t a gypsy coach. When you decide to take this position and you’re fortunate you were offered this position and a chance with four years [the length of his contract] to build something, I’m thrilled to be here. I get so excited in a city like Philadelphia, you actually have a chance to build something up. There are a lot of similarities to Boston.”
76ers general manager Sam Hinkie signed Brown to a long-term contract, as Danny Ainge did with Brad Stevens (six years), offering the coach an opportunity to institute fresh philosophies without having to worry about victories right away. Like the Celtics, the 76ers are trying to develop a winning culture, give players such as Carter-Williams and Tony Wroten a forum to grow, secure enough salary cap space to attract a major free agent, as well as score in the draft.
The Celtics possessed delusions of competing six weeks ago, but Wednesday marked their 19th loss in the last 22 games and they are in a depressed state. They led by 8 points with 8:05 remaining and had a chance to extend the lead to 3 in the final 20 seconds, but Kris Humphries missed an open jumper and Turner drove on the smaller Jerryd Bayless and scored the winner.
While losing is cementing the Celtics’ place in the draft lottery, it’s killing their spirit, and the challenge for Stevens, as much as it is to develop, is to uplift his team in such dire circumstances. The Celtics have forgotten how to win and it’s getting fruitless to continue to laud strong performances in defeats.
Jared Sullinger finished with a game-high 24 points and 17 rebounds. The Celtics outrebounded the 76ers, 59-40, and yet lost, once again folding down the stretch. What gets forgotten about this rebuilding road is the journey.
And Wednesday night, Brown and Stevens experienced opposite parts of that journey.
The 76ers pulled out a victory with late-game execution, and while they are likely decided underdogs in most of their final 36 games, an occasional victory does wonders for motivation. The Celtics now have the next three days off before Sunday’s game with the rebuilding Orlando Magic, and Stevens has to find a way to prevent complacency from setting in.
“I think you have to be really mentally tough to learn through and to grow through tough circumstances, but you have to be really mentally tough to win a playoff series. You have to be really mentally tough to come back from a bad loss and win the next night.
“If you’re not mentally tough, you have a ceiling in this business. So you might as well learn it now, and I think that’s the biggest thing about it. These kind of games, and our response to these kind of games, will tell me a lot about what we’ll look like down the road.”
Down the road isn’t even conceivable for either of these organizations. The Celtics are in the beginning stages of this rebuild. They appeared to be further along than the 76ers a few weeks ago, but that may not be the case.
What Brown, a former Boston University player, is banking on is both teams meeting back at the top and a rivalry will be revisited.
“I’d like to see it get to that level, as I remember it,” he said. “The Philly/Boston battles were always special, and I look forward to trying to help rekindle those types of memories. It always gets down to the quality of the teams as we build our programs. Hopefully we can all experience some playoff basketball down the road, hopefully not too far down the road, and then I think the rivalry becomes even more real.”