As Jaylen Brown pummeled the Lakers with one shot after another, it looked as if the only thing that could keep him from a 40-point night was the lopsided score that would turn him into a spectator for most of the fourth quarter.
The Celtics led by 27 points with eight minutes left, Boston’s other starters were mostly on the sidelines reveling in what would ultimately become their fifth win in a row. But Los Angeles stormed back against Boston’s backups, improbably pulling within seven points with two minutes remaining.
And that led coach Brad Stevens to summon his stars once again, and Brown ultimately finished off the 121-113 win with a pair of baskets that gave him 40 points on 17 for 20 shooting.
“He was really dialed in scoring the ball,” Stevens said. “You’re not going to always shoot as well as he did tonight. Obviously, that’s like once-a-season type numbers, usually. But he’s had a great year and he continues to get better and tonight was the night that he got going and we tried to ride that as much as possible.”
Los Angeles pulled within 115-110 on a Ben McLemore dunk with 1:18 left, before Brown answered with a layup and a floater, and the Lakers got no closer. The Celtics shot 56.5 percent from the field overall.
The Lakers, who played in front of fans for the first time this season, were without injured superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, as well as starting center Andre Drummond.
Two weeks ago the Celtics were stuck in eighth place in the Eastern Conference and fielding questions about whether they could avoid the play-in tournament. But the standings were so jumbled that one mild hot streak would change things suddenly, and now Boston is showing what that looks like. This was Boston’s seventh win in eight games, and it pushed it into a tie with the Hawks for fourth place in the East with 16 games remaining.
Observations from the game:
▪ Brown started the game with an easy layup and followed it up with a wide-open 3-pointer. It was the perfect confidence-boosting open, and it carried into the rest of the first half. Brown had 21 points on 9 for 10 shooting before the break, with a nice mix of 3-pointers, mid-range floaters, and layups. He probably could have done even more damage but his playing time was limited slightly after he picked up a pair of first-quarter fouls. His only blemishes were his four first-half turnovers.
He did not cool off in the second half, either. The Lakers were lingering in the third quarter before Brown scored Boston’s final six points to send them to the fourth with a 91-79 lead. Then he started the final period with another 3-pointer and a layup, stretching Boston’s advantage to 96-79.
“Just wanted to come and be aggressive,” Brown said. “Celtics-Lakers matchup is a matchup that kids dream about.”
▪ The Celtics had 20 or more turnovers in just two of their first 50 games this season, but they’ve now reached that mark in three of their last six after committing 21 on Thursday. Two of those games were wins, so it hasn’t been crushing, but it’s certainly something to monitor.
“We have a tendency to be loose with the ball, and we have to stop that,” Stevens said. “I always look at — our best teams have always been in the top five of turnovers. It’s always been Kemba [Walker’s] team’s strengths, as a point guard of teams. And we have to make sure that we do a better job of taking care of the ball as a team … It’ll bite us if we don’t clean it up, for sure. We’ve got to clean it up. Can’t keep playing like that and expect to win.”
▪ Robert Williams sat out because of a sore knee so Tristan Thompson reclaimed his starting center spot and had a well-rounded performance, with 14 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists in 25 minutes. He has provided a real lift since returning from his absence due to COVID-19, and the Celtics are 5-0 with him back.
▪ When Boston’s end-of-bench players have been pushed into duty due to injuries and illnesses this season, the decline in skill has been quite obvious. Thursday’s near-collapse provided another example of that.
Carsen Edwards, Tremont Waters, Semi Ojeleye, Aaron Nesmith, and Moe Wagner combined to go 1 for 6 with five turnovers as they coughed up most of what appeared to be an insurmountable lead late in the fourth. The Lakers unspooled most of their 24-2 run against this group.
“Hopefully it’s a good reminder and lesson so that we’re better defensively and more into air space regardless of what the score is when we check into the game,” Stevens said.
▪ Brown’s open floaters generally came with lumbering Lakers center Marc Gasol backpedaling in the paint. Boston hunted Gasol on defense throughout the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Raptors last season, and it was no different in this game. He was once an elite defender, but he just cannot move like he once did. He never stood a chance defending pick-and-rolls, and the Celtics knew it. It will be interesting to see how Lakers coach Frank Vogel distributes playing time among Gasol, Drummond, and Montrezl Harrell when James and Davis are back.
▪ Jayson Tatum’s passing has evolved this season as he has faced more constant traps and double-teams, and he’s averaging a career-high 4.1 assists per game. He had the prettiest dish of the first half on Thursday, when he spun past Kyle Kuzma at the top of the key, drove to the rim, and flipped a no-look, behind-the-back pass to Thompson for a three-point play.