The NBA makes its annual pilgrimage to London this week, as the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers come to the O2 Arena on the January 11th to compete in what is probably the highest-profile NBA game ever held on British shores.
Boston arrived with the NBA’s highest win tally this season, sitting at 33-10 and comfortably topping the Eastern Conference after their high-profile trade for Kyrie Irving in the summer turned out about as well as anybody could have imagined.
And the 76ers, despite sitting just one spot outside the play-off places at the halfway mark of the campaign, remain one of the most exciting teams in the league, due in large part to the incredible promise shown by their two young stars, Ben Simmons and the incomparable Joel Embiid.
As strange as it sounds, the word ‘unicorn’ is probably somewhat overused in the modern NBA, after being coined by veteran US sportswriter Bill Simmons (no relation to Ben) to describe “someone simply showing up and making you say, WOW, I’ve never seen that before”.
It can, however, be fairly applied to both Simmons and Embiid, both have which have displayed plenty of signs this season of being genuinely transcendent talents.
‘Embiid is thriving in his new found stardom, becoming one of the most engaging personalities in all of sports’
Simmons, the tallest conventional point guard the league has seen since the glory days of Magic Johnson in the 1980s, has had one of the most impressive rookie seasons in NBA history.
He is averaging 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists per game and displaying a maturity far beyond his years to adapt to the most challenging position in basketball as quickly as he has done.
But it’s Embiid, the 7ft 1in Cameroonian, who is the true star of the show in Philadelphia. Drafted back in 2014, the 23-year-old at one point looked doomed to a career spent mostly on the treatment table (seven-footers and foot injuries have proven to be a terrifying combination in the past), but he has flourished in his first full season on the court, putting up 22 and 10 with two blocks per game.
And just as encouragingly, Embiid is thriving in his new found stardom, becoming one of the most engaging personalities in all of sports, a fountain of hilarious tweets, on-court trolling, and thoughtful quotes.
The NBA has always done a good job in marketing the personalities of its stars, but that has sometimes resulted in a certain level of corporate, cookie-cutter images for a lot of the NBA’s more high-profile players.
Embiid’s approach to social media self-marketing may not be wholly in line with the NBA’s image, but it is that level of uniqueness, as well as his willingness to take everything less seriously than most of his peers, that has translated so well with so many.
Over in Boston, it has been something of a return to the norm for the 17-time world champions. Despite losing all-star free agent Gordon Hayward to injury in just seven minutes into his Celtics debut, coach Brad Stevens has masterfully weaved together a league-leading rotation from his cast of young, interchangeable players, and his two stars, Irving and veteran centre Al Horford.
‘The Celtics look more likely than anyone to end Cleveland’s vice-like grip on the Eastern Conference’
In his former role as LeBron James’ number two in Cleveland, Irving was required to do little more than put the ball in the basket as often as he could, while James assumed the bulk of the playmaking and leadership responsibilities.
With his new team, Irving is not only the number one scoring option, but also the Celtics’ primary playmaker, leading the motion offence that coach Stevens has implemented to great effect.
Horford’s resurgence has been a pleasant surprise, with the 31-year-old big man leading all centres in assists with 5.3 per game, and showing signs of improving his rebounding, which came in for severe criticism during the Celtics’ failed 2017 play-off run.
With promising young swingmen Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum providing far more than what was expected of them to fill the Hayward-shaped hole in the team, the Celtics look more likely than anyone to end Cleveland’s vice-like grip on the Eastern Conference, and maybe even challenge the almost inevitable Golden State triumph.
Casting an eye towards Thursday’s encounter, it is obviously hard to look past the team with the far superior record.
But if I was a betting man, my money would be on Philly.
The two teams’ last encounter at the beginning of December finished 108-97 in favour of the Celtics, after Boston took advantage of Embiid’s absence (he did not feature due to minor injury) to punish the 76ers in the paint.
With the Cameroonian back in the line-up on Thursday, you can expect that 11-point gap to be cancelled out, and then some.
Embiid, ever the showman, has shown a real flair for the big occasion so far this season, and with all eyes on the much vaunted annual London game, it’s fair to expect the kind of dominant performance that he has shown himself to be capable of when the spotlight is shining on him.