Celtics-76ers budding rivalry kicks off season

BOSTON — The names have changed, but the rivalry is making a comeback.

Boston CelticsPhiladelphia 76ers.

It’s not Bird, Parish, McHale, Erving, Barkley, Cheeks.

Instead, it’s Irving, Hayward, Horford, Embiid, Simmons, Redick.

The rivalry is back, and the Celtics, who eliminated the Sixers in five games in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, host Philly in the nationally televised NBA opener Tuesday night.

The Sixers, who had their season ended May 9 in the Game 5 loss to Boston, are a season better — and the Celtics a season healthier as both enter the 2018-19 season.

“I think our future is amazing,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said recently. “I see a progressive growth. I think we’ve got a chance to be good for a decade, I think we have a chance to be good for a long time, and that’s what excites me the most.”

It all revolves around Embiid, the big man who waited what seemed like forever to be healthy enough to play in the league. He laid blame for last year’s elimination squarely on his own shoulders and is clearly the leader of this group.

“Last year, I thought we kind of made a mistake as far as playing against Boston,” Embiid says. “I wasn’t allowed to help off of (Aron) Baynes, especially when he was in the corner. We had a lot of times when Boston was driving to the paint and I wasn’t in there or I was stuck in the corner because I wasn’t allowed to help.”

There has been an adjustment made, one that calls for Embiid to basically run the defense. However, the Boston roster that defeated the Sixers last year was without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, who are now healthy as the Celtics have emerged — with the help of LeBron James heading to Los Angeles — as the clear-cut Eastern Conference playoffs.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens, recently tabbed as the NBA’s best in a poll of the general managers, said he has used the Red Sox, currently seeking their fourth title of the 2000s, as a teaching tool for his players.

“We’ve used them, as examples quite a bit,” Stevens said Sunday. “The Brock Holt example last week of going for the cycle and getting a DNP the next day, is how you win, right? And being willing to take on those roles — both as the guy that did it and the guy that replaced him the next night in Kinsler — those things matter. They’ve set a great example for us as we move into a new year.”

Irving enters an opt-out season vowing he wants to play the rest of his career in Boston but a re-work of his contract has to be part of that. His backup, Terry Rozier, can be a restricted free agent after this season and it appears 50-50 he will finish the season in Boston. He has earned the right to be a starter in the NBA.

Hayward, who shattered his leg in the first few minutes of his first season with his new team, has been brought along slowly and has had some back trouble as he makes his return.

Hayward, in a lengthy piece in Sunday’s Boston Herald, talked about the difficulty he had missing all this time.

“Mentally, it was just to try and not think about basketball and not think about the situation I was in more than anything,” he said. “Playing video games, I’m talking to my friends while I’m playing and keeping myself occupied. If you’re down, and you’re constantly sitting there or lying in bed, lying in the hospital bed thinking, ‘Why am I not out there, I should be out there,’ replaying different things in your head.”

Now he’s back out there — and the deep Celtics roster goes about the task of putting down all comers — like the Sixers, who should be better if only due to what is reportedly better shooting by Markelle Fultz.

The Celtics went 7-2 against the Sixers last season, counting playoffs and have won nine straight home games against Philly, counting the postseason.

And, as broadcasters love to say — these two teams don’t like each other.

“Yeah, definitely some animosity,” says Boston’s Jayson Tatum. “I mean, we won, so they’re probably a little more fired up or angry than we are. But we’re excited to play. We had a lot of good matchups with them last year, a lot of great battles, especially in the playoffs. We’re excited, they’re excited. Everybody is going to be watching.”