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In retrospect, maybe Nick Foles was a bad omen. Sure, the Super Bowl MVP and Game Three bell-ringer does bring with him fond memories of Philly triumph over Boston, but what he'll be forever be best remembered for is leading his underestimated squad to remarkable postseason success, despite the team being wracked with injuries, including to their best player. Maybe it wasn't the home team who was most likely to find inspiration in his presence at the Wells Fargo Center.
Or maybe it doesn't matter anyway. After three games in this series, it's pretty tough to argue that the Celtics aren't simply the better team. Sure, a bounce here or two goes the Sixers way and the C's could be 2-1, or even 1-2 -- but after three games of those most crucial breaks gravitating towards Boston, 3-0 is starting to seem less and less like an aberration. The Celtics have routinely been more composed, more cohesive, more... ready. The Sixers, for all the winning they've done this year -- as recently as a series ago -- have not been ready.
And that's fine. The Sixers shouldn't be ready. They should only maybe be in the playoffs at all. They won 10 games two years ago and 28 games last year. We thought they'd be lucky to get 40-something Ws and a character-building first-round exit, and that was before we knew the guy we just took with the No. 1 overall pick was essentially gonna be a non-factor. Getting bounced in the second round -- as it seems all but certain the Sixers shortly will be -- still makes the Sixers ahead of schedule, and this season a resounding success.
So why was Saturday so brutal?
Well, there was the game part of it certainly, particularly the late parts -- the misses, the mental lapses, and of course the turnovers -- which turned what could've been a hard-earned but relatively straightforward home win to a historically crushing loss. But for me, at least, it wasn't just what happened with the Sixers as much as who did it to them; It kills me that it's the Celtics are beating the Sixers so decisively in this series.
I don't say that for traditional Boston-Philly reasons. Certainly there's history there, across multiple sports and multiple eras -- and particularly in basketball, where the two teams have met in the playoffs more often than any other two franchises in NBA history. But I'm not gonna pretend I know anything about Russell and Chamberlain, or Larry Bird and Dr. J; my own Celtics-Sixers history basically only goes back to Evan Turner and Rajon Rondo. And while I'm dumbfounded that we took the Big Three-era C's to 7 games with our mediocre 2011-'12 team and we'll be lucky to even send this one back to Boston for Game Five, it's hardly bad blood enough to go full Anyone But Boston.
Of course, there's reasons for particular animus between these two teams, as well. The media and fan beefing has been legendary on both sides since at least the Joel Embiid vs. Al Horford wars of All-Star season, and naturally the blockbuster pre-draft trade the two teams last summer made guarantees to bind the franchises together for as long as at least one of Jayson Tatum or Markelle Fultz is relevant enough to inspire taunting in either direction. As fun as it's been to trade jabs with Celtics folks all season, this series threatens to turn us all into September 2004 Pedro Martinez. That's tough stuff.
But even that's not the biggest drag here. That would be how these Celtics aren't just the present, they're the future, like us. They're also largely built around players still in their first three years and rapidly improving, and as you might have head, they have two All-Stars on their roster who aren't even healthy enough to be playing in this series. They also have a coach who appears to be at least Jedi-adjacent. They're likely have yet another top 10 pick coming to them next year from the forever-woeful Sacramento Kings -- given to them by Philly, by the way. I wrote after Game Two that there are worse fates to be had for the Sixers than meeting the Celtics in every Eastern Conference Finals for the next half-decade; still true, but if the C's can get past the Sixers this easily down their supposed two best players, it suggests a '60s-style dominance in the recurring matchup is possible for Boston. And that would be something of an issue.
Admittedly, that's not entirely fair to the Sixers. The on-court math of adding Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving back to the Celtics moving forward won't be as simple as tacking their projected win shares onto Boston's 2017-'18 record for next season. There will be some tough reorganization to do, with players like Tatum and Terry Rozier who stepped up this season possibly having to head back to the kids' table -- and there's no guarantee they'll return to full health and effectiveness immediately, either. Horford is already on the wrong side of 30, Marcus Smart is likely gone after this season, and the Celtics don't have cap space to add much else to their roster over the next few summers. The Celtics' outlook is a kiss from a rose at the moment, but shit could still go sideways for them.
And the Sixers have cards left to play, too. After an unprecedentely weird regular season, Fultz wasn't up for these playoffs, but he showed enough in his last-minute 2018 run to prevent the timeline battle between him and Tatum from being a first-round KO. The Sixers will almost certainly have a top 10 pick this summer, and could be able to add the future two-way wing they're currently in short supply of. Philly looms as a free agency big-spender, with enough cap space to potentially land a star player. Plus, in a league where elite talent reigns above all, the Sixers have the two guys that most coaches would choose to start a franchise with if given their pick of any player across the two rosters -- and neither of them have played even 100 regular season games yet. Brad Stevens and the Celtics' vets were able to exploit many of Simmons and Embiid's weaknesses -- not to mention those of first-time playoff coach Brett Brown -- but doing so will never be so easy for them again.
Truthfully, Sixes-Celtics '18 might end up being a moot point anyway. In case you haven't been paying attention, a series over, LeBron has awoken for Cleveland, which means the East is once again his until proven otherwise. Bowing to LeBron (or the top-seeded Raptors he's currently in the process of dispatching) would've stung, but only for the moment: Losing to the best player in the world (or the full-strength top seed) is what young teams are supposed to do, as a near rite of passage. What they're not supposed to do is lose to other young teams who've been depleted by injuries, especially when they have the two most dominant players in the series. Looks like Philly still owed one for Super Bowl LII after all.
(Note: It is perhaps worth pointing out that despite the general fatality of this post, the Sixers are technically still alive in this series. Of the 129 other teams to be down 0-3 in NBA postseason history -- 130 if you count those poor Raptors -- a grand total of none of them have ever come back to win, and we haven't seen much from this Sixers squad to suggest they'll be the first. However, as long as we're making cross-sport Philly/Boston parallels, I'll also mention that the last Game Three I attended live at the Wells Fargo Center was at the Flyers-Bruins second-round series in 2010, which the Flyers also lost in devastating fashion to bring themselves one game from elimination -- before going on to make history by winning the next four. Those morbidly curious to see if the Sixers can get a quarter of the way to doing the same are encouraged to tune it to Game Four at 6:00 on Monday night.)