When’s the last time the Celtics have had a legit rival in the Eastern conference?
A lot of people immediately think about the “Trust the process” 76ers, but it was never really a rivalry. Whenever those teams met in the playoffs, it was all Celtics. Boston was a 9-1 combined in the past two playoff series against Philly, with the last one being a sweep during the Bubble playoffs. At times it seems like rivalries between teams in the same conference are long retired in the NBA, save for a few notable exceptions (looking at you Trae Young vs the City of New York). When looking back at the old Celtics teams, however, there used to be not just games being played, but battles fought on a nightly basis. Bill Russell going up against Wilt Chamberlain and the previously mentioned 76ers, Larry Bird going up against Julius Erving and Isiah Thomas in the 80s, these were rivalries and playoff series that defined a generation of Celtics fans. Current fans don’t have that now, but it seems like a situation is growing in New York, but not in the borough you’re thinking of.
When looking at the current roster makeup of the Brooklyn Nets, it’s easy to forget that Danny Ainge once executed one of the greatest trades in NBA history. When Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were traded to Brooklyn in 2013, it seemed like a change of the times. The Nets, who recently relocated to Brooklyn from New Jersey, we’re assembling a win-now roster to contend with LeBron’s Miami Heat. The Celtics on the other hand were accepting a rebuild that seemed like a long process.
Now nine years later, they’re about to meet in the playoffs for the second year in a row, with wildly different paths during those years. The Celtics did rebuild, for one year, then proceeded to make the playoffs every year since then, including three trips to the Eastern Conference Finals. Those Nets teams with Garnett and Pierce never made it out of the second round and started to rebuild completely by 2015. The Celtics tried to go the free-agent route with the additions of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, but injuries got in the way of their true potential. The former of that duo is now on the Nets, as Kyrie Irving’s promise of retiring with the Celtics turned out to be nothing but empty words. He joined up with Kevin Durant, arguably the greatest scorer of our generation, to create one of the best offensive duos the league has ever seen. When the Nets played the Celtics last year in the playoffs, it was a gentlemen’s sweep, with Tatum’s 50 point masterpiece the only real bright spot of the series.
The tables have turned, literally, as now the Celtics sit at the No. 2 seed after one of the most miraculous in-season turnarounds in recent memory. The Nets, after surviving injuries and vaccine mandates, have found themselves at the 7th seed, matching up with the team that they decimated just a year before. This is a much different Celtics team, one that has bought into the teachings of Ime Udoka and become a powerhouse on defense. Beating KD and Kyrie is no easy feat, and this may be one of the only 2 vs. 7 matchups in history where the lower seed is favored, but that’s OK.
The Celtics thrive as underdogs, just look back at those Isaiah Thomas teams where they thrived on being the team that no one thought they had a shot. Those teams had an edge, a chip on their shoulder the size of the Garden itself, something we’re starting to see a lot of from this year’s Celtics. They’re gonna need that chip in order to get past Brooklyn and have any shot at getting out of a loaded Eastern Conference. These two teams have been intertwined for the last decade, and have had their share of bad blood. Kyrie Irving stomping on Lucky is the obvious one, but a lot of Nets fans are still sour about the heist of the century by the Celtics. If the Celtics can take out the Nets in the first round of the playoffs, we will be looking at the next great Boston Celtics rival.