Sunday, December 17The Voice of London

Why the January NBA game at The O2 will be the greatest ever

In January, London will welcome the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers in a basketball show the capital has probably never seen before.

It’s just 310 miles that distance Boston from Philadelphia. A 5-hour journey which could be as paltry as $15 by coach. Yet in January, NBA sends those almost neighbouring franchises, the Celtics and the 76ers, in the middle of the season across the pond to London. And, from our perspective, it’s really extraordinary.

It’s not just the proximity that stands out on this occasion. London has not yet been bestowed on a match-up of this scale by the NBA. A genuine title contender versus an extremely talented bunch of potential future MVPs that rocks the league under a catchy phrase – Trust the Process. The British capital hasn’t seen it before.

It is not to say that the O2 hasn’t witnessed NBA games keeping the audience at the edges of their seats. In 2016, the Toronto Raptors spectacularly came out victorious against the Orlando Magic after extra time. This January, the Denver Nuggets scored whopping 140 points against the Indiana Pacers led by an NBA star – Paul George.

But all those games have always been a Newcastle taking on Brighton, or Everton against West Brom at best. Decent, sometimes breath-taking, but lacking competitiveness from the top. Celtics against Philly is the calibre of the North London derby, or Manchester United against City. It is something that would sell out in minutes even in the US.

Celtics have become the new super team in the league, encroaching the universe where in recent years everything was orbiting only around the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Having had an almost impeccable summer and adding a rookie Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward and Cleveland’s very own star Kyrie Irving to their roster; fast-forward a few months, Boston bear NBA’s best record this season with 18-3.

They have also recently been on a 16-game winning streak and already beaten the champions from San Francisco. “Weather’s great in Boston in June,” afterwards said the Warriors’ leader Steph Curry, implying they will have to visit the city again around that time.

That’s obviously when the NBA Finals are played.

After hitting the rock bottom in 2015 and breaking the inglorious record of the longest losing streak with 28 games, the Sixers are now an exciting side packed with future All-Stars.

Led by a proclaimed LeBron James’s heir Ben Simmons and charismatic Joel Embiid, they’ve become noisy neighbours to Boston, fuelling this fierce rivalry even further.

Because, Celtics against Sixers is a fixture with a long history. They’ve played each other 19 times in the NBA playoffs, the most number of post-season meetings in history.

It is a match-up graced by duels between the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, the only player who scored 100 points in a game against New York Knicks in 1962, and Boston’s great Bill Russel, an 11-time NBA champion and one of the few players capable of contending with Michael Jordan for the title of the best player in the history.

It has also seen battles between Julius Erving and iconic Larry Bird, Boston’s face of a new era in the 80s’. In both periods, the Celtics and Philly were prime title contenders.

And with those sides edging closer to bringing the glory of those days back, we should be thankful to the NBA for the chance of witnessing it first-hand. This will finally be a game played on British soil that really matters.

Boston cannot slip if they are to dethrone the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference. The Sixers will do everything to prove themselves against a top opponent. The significance of the clash is unique for a match played so far away from the US.

So, London, brace yourself for showtime taken straight from America. Title contenders, future stars in a fixture of such a pedigree – it might be a while before we get to see it so close to home again.

Words: Damian Burchardt | Subbing: Oliver Browning

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