Sixers Embrace Challenge of Playing Celtics on Big Stage

There was a little sizzle missing from the Sixers' win last Saturday night over the Raptors.

No Kawhi Leonard. No Serge Ibaka. No Jonas Valanciunas, who always seems to give Joel Embiid fits. 

The Sixers took care of business, but the team would've liked the challenge of playing one of the East's best - and a team that's had their number - at their best.

Luckily for Embiid and company, they'll get another chance to face a team that fits that description on one of the NBA's biggest stages. The Celtics will be without Aron Baynes Christmas day, but Al Horford, Jayson Tatum and most of the Boston players that dispatched the Sixers in five games in last year's playoffs will be there.

I was bummed when I heard Baynes was out," Embiid said after Saturday's win. "I love playing against those guys. They're physical. I like it. I like the physicality. I like the toughness. It's fun. It makes basketball fun. I was bummed to hear that he was out because I like going against those guys. 

Al is another one. He always has his way against us. He's such a great guy - veteran, knows how to play the game. I'm excited to go out there and on Christmas Day too, that's special. It's going to be exciting and we're going to have a blast.

Christmas day has become a platform for the NBA to show off its premier teams and rivalries. Before last season's game against the Knicks, the Sixers weren't a participant on Christmas since an NBA Finals rematch with the Lakers in 2001. That game, a loss in L.A., was the team's first on the holiday since 1988.

Say what you will about "The Process" and everything that's happened since, playing on this day shows the Sixers' return to relevance to not just fans in Philadelphia, but around the entire NBA.

"It's exciting to play on Christmas," JJ Redick, who admitted he has mixed feelings about having to play, said. "It is a showcase day for our league. It is an honor. I am not going to go into the rest of my thoughts on playing on Christmas, but it is an honor. You want to play at your best and they are the team that knocked us out of the playoffs so we know we have to be at our best to play them."

The Sixers are coming off a weird week. They crushed the Cavaliers in Cleveland Sunday and then were crushed by the Spurs in a quirky back-to-back in San Antonio. They followed that up with decisive victories over the lowly Knicks and shorthanded Raptors.

After Boston, the Sixers continue what is likely their most difficult stretch of the season with games against the Jazz, Blazers and Clippers.

But the Sixers don't want sympathy. They embrace the challenge of playing the league's best at their best.

"As a team, we have a gift exchange [Sunday], then we all fly the following day to play the Boston Celtics at Boston Garden," Brett Brown said with a smile. "Then you hit the road with the team and we're all together. But take it a bit further, and look at the month of January. It is real, and it's just the way it should be. We love it. We want this."

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