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NBA Rivalries: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics

The rivalry between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics goes back to the very start of the NBA. It is a rivalry that has been built on epic matchups and bad blood between players, you could even see punches thrown on the court. Their rivalry is also based on the playoffs as the two teams have had the most meetings of any two when it comes to the postseason. Over 21 playoff series, there is a lot of history between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics which you may want to consider for your NBA spreads.

Pre-76ers History

When the rivalry between the two teams began, it was the Boston Celtics against the Syracuse Nationals when both met in the Eastern Division from the Fifties. The Nationals even had the better of it with three consecutive playoff wins from 1954 to 1956 which sandwiched their 1955 NBA championship. Then it was the Celtics’ turn with wins over the Nationals in 1957, 1959, and 1961. However, in 1963, the Syracuse Nationals franchise was sold and the Philadelphia 76ers came into existence.

A New-ish Rivalry

Though the Philadelphia 76ers were a new franchise, it did mean that the basketball city rivalry between Philadelphia and Boston was reignited. One had existed with the Golden State Warriors from 1946 yet they were moved to San Francisco in 1962. The two teams would meet in the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals with both gunning for the NBA Finals. That matchup alone was one for the ages as it went the distance and then some.

Boston led 110-109 with five seconds remaining on the clock and they had the ball. Bill Russell attempted a pass inbound yet the ball hit the overhanging guy wire that held up the backboard. A turnover ensued yet the 76ers failed to make it count as John Havlicek ended up deflecting his inbound pass and time ticked away. The Boston Celtics went on to defeat the Los Angeles Lakers across five games and claimed their seventh consecutive title.

The Boston Strangler

It was not all Boston Celtics dominance, though it may have looked like it across the Sixties. By the early Eighties, the Boston sports press had given Andrew Toney, the 76ers shooting guard, the nickname The Boston Strangler. Sure, it was not endearing yet it did indicate how well-respected he was for taking control of the games versus the Celtics. Perhaps Toney's greatest performance was scoring 25 points in the final quarter at the Philadelphia Spectrum which was a record for the team.

Toney would go on to score another team-high of 33 points in Game 7 of the Eastern Finals in 1982, in Boston. This was the famous "Beat LA" matchup where the 76ers advanced to the Finals and saw redemption. In doing so, they avoided another consecutive meltdown against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Finals.

Toney's performances, in essence his talent for huge tallies in big playoff games, meant that the Boston Celtics brought in Dennis Johnson. The trade was worth it for a Hall of Gamer and defensive ace from the Phoenix Suns as it largely worked with the Celtics claiming titles in 1984 and 1986. If you want to get the insight on NBA rumors then check out our dedicated section.

Bird v Dr. J

At times, the rivalry between the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers became physical on the court. Most notably, when Julius "Dr J." Erving and Larry Bird threw punches at Boston Garden during their game on November 9th, 1984. During the Eighties, the two teams regularly met on the way to the NBA Finals and in 1984, both teams had started the season well. Philadelphia were 5-0 and Boston were 4-0, something had to give.

Both Bird and Erving would end up in the Hall of Fame yet Bird had ranked up 42 points in half an hour that night. An offensive foul was called on Bird and a scuffle ensued which emptied the benches as both stars threw punches. If you have seen a classic photo of the two players grabbing each other by the throat then it is from that game. Both players were fined a sizable $7,500 each, the second-highest fines given out for player conduct in the history of the NBA.

That the Celtics eventually won 130-119 almost pales in comparison to the drama that went down that night. In the NBA Finals that season, the Celtics beat the Los Angeles Lakers to claim their first championship at home since 1966. Arguably, a new rivalry had already eclipsed the one with the Philadelphia 76ers as the Celtics would often come up against the Los Angeles Lakers for basketball supremacy.


The Boston Celtics would likely call the Los Angeles Lakers their greatest rivals. That largely comes down to how often the two teams have faced off against each other in NBA Finals. Both teams were closely matched so the matchups would be fiercely contested and there was little to choose between either team. However, for basketball purists, you can see that the original rival for the Boston Celtics was, and always will be, the Philadelphia 76ers.