Hackett: Celtics fans should embrace fear of rivals on the rise

Jim Hackett
November 15, 2018 - 9:47 am
Giannis Antetokounmpo

Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports


In last year’s playoffs vs. the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, there were some tense moments for the Celtics, particularly against Milwaukee, but I never felt any fear.

There was plenty of tension but a stronger dose of confidence as I watched game by game. Even in the Eastern Conference Finals against longtime rival LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers, the upstart and undermanned Celtics fought valiantly despite numerous key injuries and heavy odds against them, so again, a feeling of fear never really set in.

Then during this entire offseason, Celtics fans walked proudly with unflappable confidence, fearlessly awaiting the start of the new season and their certain Eastern Conference coronation.

How are you feeling now?

If even the slightest feeling of fear has set in during these early stages of the season, or perhaps after letting the Jimmy Butler trade sink in a bit, I’m here to tell you that’s a good thing. Yes, fear is good. You can’t have a real rivalry without fear and with teams like Milwaukee and Philadelphia improving around you, we may once again relive what NBA basketball used to feel like during the glory days of the bitter, passionate, bloodbath rivalries of the 80’s. Long story short, I’m glad Jimmy Butler is in Philadelphia, it’s time to get back to tough times with even tougher matchups.

After a lousy road trip, the Celtics trounced the Bulls on Wednesday night and look forward to an even bigger game against conference-leading Toronto on Friday. However, neither of these developments is the real story. The story in the NBA, particularly in the Eastern Conference, is that for the first time in a really long time, real rivalries are once again brewing between familiar foes. The fear of potential unrealized expectations will feed this fire all year long. I say blaze on.

Here’s something you may or may not know -- the Milwaukee Bucks of the 1980s won six straight division titles, swept the Celtics in the 1983 playoffs amidst their near peak dominance and were a royal pain in their collective behinds for nearly a decade. The Bucks were stacked and always played those great Celtics teams tough. They made the Celtics work for it time and again. Most times, the Celtics had the upper hand, but as a fan, you were never comfortable, not for a second. Why? Fear. Fear that they could be the team that gets in the way of the Celtics winning another title, or of Bird ever catching Magic in their race to collect championships.

Anyone who lived through it knew that Celtics vs. Lakers was the rivalry you lived for, but Celtics vs. 76ers nearly killed you along the way. This was the rivalry of all rivalries. It had everything. Epic playoff battles. Fights. Star power on both sides. An aging Hall of Famer in Julius Erving on one side and on ours, Larry Bird. A man whom we were certain was the greatest basketball player we’d ever seen and he was playing in our midst each and every night. The supporting casts were loaded with perennial All-Stars and players that would haunt your dreams, like Philadelphia sharpshooter Andrew Toney. I swear there was a three-year period where Toney never missed a shot against the Celtics. It sure felt that way…

Now when I watch ‘world traveler’ Giannis Antetokounmpo drive to the hole and dominate the paint, those familiar feelings return. Same goes for the beastly Joel Embiid, whose physical skills and dominance reminds me of Gronk at his best batting away defensive backs in his path.

As Giannis improves and Butler adds a needed dimension to the 76ers offense, things look to get really tense around these parts when these contenders meet.

Additionally, in any real rivalry both teams need to know that they can beat the other, any time they play. I think Philadelphia in particular was missing that conviction in the playoffs last season. That’s why I never felt like the Celtics were in danger of losing that series. Despite the Celtics youth and reliance on bench players they were the far more seasoned team and it showed as the series crept on. This spring? It could be different. Embiid already looked ready for postseason combat last season and now his supporting cast is improving around him.

The Celtics stand at a mediocre 8-6. They are an immensely talented team and are working out the kinks and combinations of how to best make all of their pieces work together. I’m confident in Brad Stevens to find the right mix and am equally confident in the talent and grit of the players they have on the roster. No doubt there, but as the Celtics work to find their way, a couple of old and familiar foes of yesteryear will continue to gain confidence. Be ready for the anxiety that accompanies it Celtics fans.

Maybe you’re worried that the Celtics could miss a real championship opportunity this season because of their slow start. Or perhaps you’re worried that “they have too much talent” and won’t be able to put it all together as Charles Barkley has publicly said. Don’t worry, that’s just fear talking and if fear is creeping in, then the rivalries are back. Blaze on baby, blaze on.