A HOST of stars have turned out for the NBA’s London showpiece between the 76ers and Celtics today.
Ben Simmons’ squad is attempting to take its 19-19 record into the positive against the best team in the East in front of crowd filled with football identities including Sir Alex Ferguson and Michael Ballack.
Philly made a fine start, forcing Boston coach Brad Stevens to call the first time-out as they jumped out to a 9-2 lead.
JJ Reddick and Simmons were on fire early, combining for the 76ers first 16 points as they maintained a five-point advantage midway through the term.
Australia’s Aron Baynes made two early baskets and a pair of free throws to lead Boston with six points as they trailed 21-17 with 3:31 remaining in the first.
Another powerful move by Simmons took his tally to eight points but it was the Reddick show as he hit an off-balance corner three to move to 13 points and put Philly up 28-23 after one.
The 76ers’ lead hit double digits early in the second as another Reddick three and nice play by TJ McConnell made it 42-27. Simmons returned and immediately assisted on a Robert Covington three to force another Stevens timeout with the lead at 18 points.
A number of the players — including Kyrie Irving and Joel Embiid — taking the court at the O2 Arena are also likely to appear in February’s All-Star Game, some surely going to be bolstered by votes they get from those fans in London and watching worldwide. And the amount of young talent that is on display makes this the most hotly anticipated matchup of the eight regular-season games that have taken place in England.
“I’m appreciative of all fan votes. I’m just a fan of basketball, a fan of sport and now I get to mark off my bucket of playing at the O2 Arena,” said Irving, who is averaging 24.1 points per game to lead the Celtics to a 33-10 start and the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
“I can’t wait for that experience and to have the opportunity to come here to Europe and especially London and to grow the game of basketball for the NBA.”
While the Celtics have exceeded expectations after losing free-agency acquisition Gordon Hayward to a horrific ankle injury on the opening night of the season, the 76ers have struggled to maintain consistency. Still, Philadelphia (19-19) is very much in contention for a playoff berth, a marked improvement on recent years. The team’s development plan, or “The Process” as it was known, is finally bearing fruit.
A healthy Embiid is the main reason why.
Drafted in 2014, Embiid missed his first two NBA seasons with foot injuries and managed just 31 games last season. Thursday will be his 30th appearance this season and he is averaging 23.8 points per game.
The gregarious 23-year-old is third among Eastern Conference forwards in fan voting, but he is aware a big performance in London could elevate his chances of holding onto his spot.
“I’m a winner, I’m competitive but at the same time it’s also for the fans,” Embiid said. “I want to have fun, I always do have fun on the court and then I play better when I have fun. I’m going to play team basketball and try to put on a show too.”
Another factor in the 76ers’ improvement has been the play of Ben Simmons. The 21-year-old Australian point-forward, a leading rookie of the year candidate, could also become an All-Star.
“That would be amazing,” said Simmons. “I honestly don’t know what I would say about that but it would just be amazing. I’d be blessed.”
However, 76ers coach Brett Brown said whether Simmons or Embiid is voted into the All-Star game really won’t prove anything.
“There’s a difference between popular and championships and that’s my version of a star,” Brown said. “Are you able to get your teams to win and win championships? This is the challenge, for Ben and Joel, that’s my mission for them.”
The good thing for Embiid and Simmons, they could do both.
— with AP
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