By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics and the 76ers are at the top of the Eastern Conference (along with the Milwaukee Bucks), and the two rivals will finally square off for the first time in 2021 on Wednesday night in Philadelphia. Unfortunately in this season where nothing is normal and it’s hard to draw conclusions on a nightly basis, Wednesday night’s tilt will not be normal and it will be hard to draw any conclusions from the matchup.

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But if the Celtics want to prove that their strong start is no fluke, they won’t let the fact that they’ll be playing without their star player keep them from putting up a valiant fight on Wednesday evening. Even if the 76ers will be at full strength.

This is the kind of challenge the team should welcome instead of cower over. These are not the 76ers that the Celtics swept out of the Orlando bubble last August. They’re closer to the 76ers that took three of four from Boston during the regular season, but with Doc Rivers on the bench instead of Brett Brown, and a little more shooting at their disposal.

Ben Simmons was not around for that summertime sweep, but he is back and flirting with a triple-double every night. Joel Embiid and Seth Curry are both expected to return to action as well, giving the 76ers their full arsenal of contributors on Wednesday night.

Embiid missed Philly’s last game Saturday with a sore right knee and would have missed Sunday’s game as well had it not been postponed due to COVID-19 issues on the Philadelphia roster. The 76ers are a much different team without their giant in the lineup, going 0-3 without Embiid this season.

Curry spent the last week-plus in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19, missing five games. He’ll give Philadelphia another player who can knock down shots, bringing his 60 percent shooting back to the floor.

Update: Curry will no longer play Wednesday night, according to Keith Pompey.

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The Celtics, meanwhile, will be without their franchise player in Jayson Tatum, who is still going through the final stages of a return from COVID-19. Hopefully Friday night’s matchup will be a little more normal, with Brad Stevens leaving the door open for a potential Tatum return in the second of two matchups.

But that won’t help the Celtics on Wednesday night, and it shouldn’t stop them from sinking their teeth into the opportunity in front of them. They’ve been stewing about a 30-point loss to the New York Knicks for the last three days, and there’s no better way to prove that horrendous defeat was the outlier of the season than to beat a rival with an undermanned squad.

The Celtics do have a built-in excuse without Tatum, but that doesn’t mean they should use it. Saying that the Celtics’ success centers only on Tatum would be ignoring the fact that Jaylen Brown is playing better overall than Tatum this season, and that Brown is quickly proving that he’s more of a 1A than a No. 2 to Tatum. Kemba Walker is also back, albeit a rusty version of Kemba, to take some of the offensive burden. And if the Celtics continue to be aggressive on offense — up and down the roster — they should still be able to put up a good fight Wednesday night.

As far as containing Embiid, who usually feasts on the Boston defense, at least the Celtics will be getting a frontline defender back in Robert Williams. After a two-week break in action, the Timelord is either going to have unlimited pep in his step for Wednesday night’s matchup, or his conditioning will resemble that of Embiid’s last postseason.

While the 76ers will be at full strength on Wednesday night, the Celtics will not. That kinda stinks, because this week’s two-game set between the teams was supposed to help sort out the mess atop the conference and the division.

Not having Tatum gives the Celtics a nice cushion should they fall flat on their face Wednesday night. And a split over the next two games is an acceptable outcome, whether Tatum is in the lineup Friday night or not.

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But hopefully Sunday’s embarrassing loss to the Knicks and an important matchup with a division foe is all the Celtics need to ignore their built-in excuse on Wednesday night.