Who would have thought this Lakers-Celtics showdown would be a matchup of mediocrity? The Celtics have now failed twice to eclipse .500 after road losses to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks.
The Lakers, with LeBron James missing for 18 days with an abdominal strain, could only muster 8-8 despite having 12 of their first 16 games at Staples Center.
James is questionable to return Friday while Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams are each questionable to play with injuries.
But it’s unquestionably a battle of two teams off to disappointing starts.
The Celtics are 5-3 after a 2-5 start but blowing a 19-point lead against the Cavaliers and then their inability to match the Hawks offensively Wednesday is why they are muddling around the .500 mark. The Celtics are last in the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring (22.9 points) and 28th in field goal percentage.
In other words, they aren’t making shots to close out games. Jayson Tatum should shoulder the blame for those late shortcomings because of his early season struggles. But he was rolling against the Hawks and the Celtics still faltered down the stretch because he didn’t get any help.
Tatum scored 10 points in the final period on 3-for-5 shooting. His teammates tallied 12 on 5-for-15 shooting. Brown’s eventual return should help greatly but coach Ime Udoka has to find a way to get more offensive production out of his bench.
Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard, who showed such promise as rookies, are struggling mightily, perhaps because of inconsistent playing time. They are a combined 13-for-53 shooting from the 3-point line and have combined to average 4 points per game.
Marcus Smart has made a major impact defensively but his 26 percent shooting from the 3-point line is his lowest since 2015-16. The Celtics don’t need Smart to score often but they do need him to hit open shots. Another issue is 3-point shooting. The Celtics are 12th in the NBA in attempts but 26th in percentage.
Against the Hawks, they missed 30 of 41 3-pointers and the Celtics other than Grant Williams and Tatum were a combined 3 for 21. The Celtics would make things a lot easier on themselves if they just made shots.
The Lakers began this season with championship aspirations after acquiring Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza, Kendrick Nunn and Kent Bazemore to join James and Anthony Davis. The results have been mixed.
Not only has James missed 10 games but rising guard Talen Horton-Tucker missed the first 13 with injury. Anthony has exceeded expectations while Westbrook has played the choppy way indicative of the past few years. While he still possesses the elite athleticism, Westbrook struggles with his outside shooting and on-court decisions.
The issue has been defense. The Lakers are 28th in the league in points allowed and despite a lineup filled with prolific scorers; they are getting outscored by 3 points per game, eighth-worst in the NBA.
Age was supposed to be the Lakers’ biggest detractor but the team has suffered without James, going 4-6 with two embarrassing losses to the Oklahoma City Thunder and a thumping by the Minnesota Timberwolves.
At times the Lakers have appeared uninterested, just waiting for more meaningful games but chemistry isn’t being established when they are chasing teams after falling behind. Davis, named to the NBA’s Top 75 team, has not galvanized his teammates in James’s absence, ending all speculation that he is the Lakers’ No. 1 option.
The Warriors have been the most impressive team in the Western Conference by far while the Phoenix Suns have won 10 consecutive games. The invincibility of LeBron James-led teams is gone. The Suns beat the Lakers in five games in last year’s Western quarterfinals.
“We put a team together and we haven’t seen it yet,” Davis said. “It’s a lot, kind of like the same thing last year. We’ve got to adjust. We’ve just got to continue to fight until we get everybody back. But we still have guys able to win basketball games.”
That final point is for sure. The Celtics won’t breathe any signs of relief if James misses Friday. The Lakers’ lineup remains filled with Hall of Famers. The Celtics also needed overtime to beat a Milwaukee Bucks team without All-Stars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton.
Every team can use injuries as an excuse. Despite Brown’s hamstring absence and Robert Williams missing occasional games, the Celtics should be better than 7-8. Just like the Lakers should be better than 8-8.
As with these rivals, you can expect a highly competitive game, this time between two desperate teams trying to gain momentum and avoid further criticism. The Celtics have an opportunity to make up ground on this four-game homestand but their offense has been so lacking in stretches, it’s hard to determine if they are capable of holding a late lead against a team filled with historically clutch players, even if James isn’t there.
It will be a considerable challenge for the Celtics, one which they need to meet with better execution and offensive efficiency.