For five grueling games, the two old rival franchises have traded blows in the Eastern Conference semifinals, neither team winning consecutive games and both teams scoring emotional wins on the road. The physical nature of the series has contrasted sharply with the run-and-gun styles of the two semifinal series out West.
Close games are not what Celtics-Sixers are only about, though. This is the rivalry that spawned the infamous photograph of Larry Bird and Julius Erving at each other's throats. Andrew Toney and Kevin McHale were not merely opponents in their rival cities — they were villains.
"There were players on each side of the court who just did not like each other," Sixers coach Billy Cunningham said in an outstanding story by Mark Kram on the 1982 East finals, when the rivalry was at its most heated.
So after the Celtics' 101-85 win over the Sixers in Game 5 on Monday, Garnett sauntered into the home locker room and uttered the words that fired up the populous of the city some 300 miles to the south.
"Not even close," Garnett said, comparing Boston fans to Philadelphia fans. "You've got fans, and then you've got fair-weather fans. Take that how you want."
To which I say: Finally.
Finally, some of that healthy hatred has been injected into this series. Celtics-Sixers is supposed to feature bulletin-board barbs and chippy play. The four technical fouls in a span of five minutes in Game 4 were a start, but this series has been dominated by well-intentioned platitudes from both sides. The play should be rough (within reason) and the trash talk should be loud and persistent. That is what a rivalry is all about.
Garnett, Kobe Bryant and few others are the irritating, yet refreshing, foils to the generation that includes LeBron James and Dwight Howard. While those latter stars hug their buddies on the other team before tip-off and divine ways to gather all their friends on one squad for a preseason championship celebration, Garnett and Bryant look at their opponents with disdain. That makes them a lot of enemies and invites numerous detractors, but as the controlled brutality of Heat-Knicks, Celtics-Pistons or Pistons-Bulls (for that matter, Pistons-anybody) in the 1980s and '90s showed, that scowling approach makes for the most memorable basketball.
Few players feed off negative energy like Garnett. Sixers fans are going to boo him regardless, he probably figures, so why not give them something real to boo about? Philadelphia fans are not any more "fair-weather" than any other city's, but that is beside the point. Garnett's comments were bound to get people fired up, which is exactly how they should be for a series between these two teams.
The fans at Game 6 will be loud, and they will boo Garnett every time he touches the ball. It is too bad the old Spectrum was demolished two years ago, because that venue would be the perfect setting for the war of wills that should take place. And it will be grand.
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