As it has for each of the last six years, the NBA held a regular season game in London this week. Thursday night saw the Boston Celtics take on the Philadelphia 76ers at a sold-out O2 Arena, meaning UK basketball fans got to see stars such as Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid going head-to-head in competitive action. Both teams have playoff aspirations thanks to their marquee players, yet a surprisingly unheralded name threatened to steal the headlines when the game got underway.
Veteran shooting guard J.J. Redick only joined the Sixers this past summer, signing as a free agent after deciding not to renegotiate with the LA Clippers. He was on fire from the opening tip-off here, scoring on a variety of long-range shots, growing more and more bold each time an attempt found its way through the net.
One such shot saw him catch the ball in the right corner while running at full speed, yet the 33-year-old had the wherewithal to get his shoulders square to the basket before hitting yet another long-range bomb. Philly had won four consecutive games before heading to London and behind the red hot shooting of Redick — who scored 18 of his 22 points in the first half — they jumped out to a 49-27 lead midway through the second quarter.
Perhaps it was the time difference, jet leg or the unfamiliar days off they’d had in preparation for this game, but the usually unflappable Celtics look rattled. Normally so smooth and efficient as they execute Brad Stevens’ superb schemes, they looked rushed and nervous in the early going, missing easy opportunities while allowing the Sixers to repeatedly slice them open at the other end. The Coach did everything he could, making substitutions to shift his line up around and burning through timeouts to encourage, cajole and calm his players.
Nothing worked, but then the Celtics were jolted into life by Jaylen Brown. The second-year wingman nailed a three of his own from the corner and headed back down the court, blowing a kiss towards the Philly bench as he did so. Suddenly Boston looked like themselves again, and while the Sixers are lauded for their wealth of young talent, it was largely 21-year-old Brown and 19-year-old Jayson Tatum who dragged them back into the game.
As they have so many times already this season, the duo did it all during a third-quarter burst that completely put the Celtics in the driving seat, outscoring Philadelphia 37-22 over that 12 minutes and taking a lead they would never relinquish. It was a performance that underlined not only why they boast the best record in the Eastern Conference (34-10), but also the fact that – unlike any of the other NBA title challengers – they do so while fielding a largely inexperienced core.
Of course, the quality of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford is well established, but the age gap between Boston and the other contenders is eyeopening to say the least. In descending order, Cleveland, San Antonio, Houston, and Golden State are the four teams with the oldest average age in the league, yet each has aspirations of lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy in June. Then there’s the Celtics with an average age of 24.5, the NBA’s third youngest team and with the only two lower being the basement-dwelling Lakers and Suns.
Some of that is due to Gordon Haywood’s opening night injury, the 27-year-old star replaced by a combination of Brown and Tatum, but it is largely Stevens’ ability to mould the talent at his disposal into such an effective unit. Nowhere is that more true than without the ball, Boston boasting the league’s best defence as they deny opponents the space, time and shots they favour, forced instead to settle for the poor, off balance looks that saw Philadelphia crumble in the second half.
Able to switch assignments all over the floor and always alert, the Celtics don’t so much swarm and smother teams, they instead grind them into dust. The Sixers grew more and more frustrated, Simmons resorting to lowering a shoulder into Marcus Smart in the fourth quarter, an incident that led to much pushing and shoving as another team fell to Boston’s perfect blend of aggression and intelligence.
Much tougher challenges await for Horford, Irving, Brown and Tatum, but Stevens will have them ready. The London game was entertaining and showed the potential of two of the NBA’s best young teams, but while Philadelphia needs time to mature into a true contender, the Celtics underlined the fact they are ready to compete here and now.