Three weeks into the NBA season, the Philadelphia 76ers were the darlings of the NBA. They won 10 of their first 13 games, and they weren't just beating teams -- they were crushing them. Seven of their first 10 victories were by 20 points or more, and given that point differential is traditionally a solid predictor of post-season success, the growing sentiment was that the Sixers were at least a solid Eastern Conference playoff team, if not a longshot threat to contend for a title, if not this season then in the near future.
About he same time, the Boston Celtics were off to a terrible start. The Celtics, fielding the same core that won a championship in 2008, advanced to the Finals in 2010, and lost in the conference semis in 2011, were seemingly poised to take the logical next step in that progression -- at best first round fodder, if not out of the playoffs completely. When the Sixers were 10-3, the Celtics were 4-8, and looked, well, old. Philly featured six key rotation players, including three starters, 25-years-old or younger. No Celtic in the rotation was younger than 26, and four starters were in their mid-30s. Time had seemingly caught up with Boston, and Philly was poised to dominate the Atlantic Division for years to come.
That was then and this is now.
When the two teams met Sunday night, the resurgent Celtics had already overtaken the slumping Sixers for first place in the division. Trailing by only two games, Philadelphia could make it a race again with a win. Instead, the Sixers found themselves on the wrong end of one of those 20 point margins of victory as Boston won 103-79.
The Celtics used an 18-2 run early in the second quarter to break the game open and maintained a double digit lead the rest of the way. The Boston defense held Philadelphia to 38% shooting for the game and 2-11 from deep. Four Boston starters (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass) scored between 17 and 20 points, while Rajon Rondo handed out 15 assists. Ray Allen added 10 in his new sixth man role.
For the Sixers, no starter scored more than Andre Iguodala's 13, and Nikola Vucevic led them in scoring with 14 points off the bench. Suddenly the advantages of youth like energy and young legs are being completely nullified by inexperience and the nagging reality that the team was never really as good as their early results.
And now Philadelphia has to start worrying about staying among the top eight teams in the East and qualifying for the playoffs at all -- they can forget about winning the division. In their last 27 games, the Sixers are just 9-18. That's not a temporary funk but a much bigger problem that has lasted almost two months. At 29-27, the Sixers are just a single game ahead of ninth-place Milwaukee and the trend lines (the Bucks have won seven of 10 while the Sixers have lost seven of 10) do not favor them.
The Celtics, on the other hand, have won nine of their last 12 and are as hot as any team in the East. The group that looked so old and slow at the start of the season now looks like a tough out that no one will want to play.
For all of Sunday's NBA box scores, check out SI.com's NBA scoreboard.