With Bill Russell and Paul Pierce watching from courtside seats and ‘Beat LA!’ chants pouring down, the Celtics provided a glimpse of the potential they insisted had remained buried during a frustrating start.
Boston pummeled the Lakers so thoroughly in its 130-108 win that Los Angeles coach Frank Vogel removed all of his stars with more than four minutes left. Before they departed, though, the damage that was inflicted on them was severe.
The Celtics attacked the rim from all angles, putting constant pressure on this Lakers team that is filled with veterans whose best days of defense are behind them. Boston scored 56 points in the paint, attempted 38 free throws and mostly did as it pleased.
“It just shows that we’re not perfect, but the fight is in us,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “It might not look like it right now, but we’re going to turn things around.”
Jayson Tatum further distanced himself from his early-season slump, erupting for 37 points and 11 rebounds. Smart had 22 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists, and Dennis Schröder added 21 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists against his former team.
“We can’t let people off the hook,” Schröder said. “Just got to be aggressive and put pressure on the rim. That’s when we’re at our best.”
The Celtics held a 51-33 rebounding edge despite the absence of their starting center, Robert Williams, who sat out with a sore knee. Jaylen Brown also remained sidelined because of a hamstring strain, and Lakers superstar LeBron James returned after missing more than two weeks with an abdominal injury.
When James helped the Lakers roar to an early 14-point lead, it appeared that his presence would be enough to help Los Angeles snap out of its funk. The Celtics committed seven first-quarter turnovers and resembled the team that stumbled through losses to the Cavaliers and Hawks last week more than one that had vowed to be better.
Smart knew that if the Celtics bounced back quickly, however, the slow start would not define their night.
“Once you put your head down, you show that you’re defeated by a team like that and guys like that,” Smart said. “They smell blood and continue to go after you. For us, it was just continue to keep going. If they make a shot, we go right back at them.”
Smart and Josh Richardson kept Boston afloat by combining for 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting in the first quarter. Smart sensed the need for extra playmaking with Brown out and Tatum on the bench, and he was particularly aggressive. And the Lakers appeared willing to cede baskets if the Celtics put any effort into seeking them.
“I didn’t want us to go into our old habits of just settling, trying to get it back in one possession,” Smart said. “Just trying to attack the rim, find the right plays for myself and for other guys. That’s what we’ve been missing a lot over the years is when we get down like that against a good team, we tend to relax and kind of go the easy route of trying to shoot our way out of it.”
The Celtics pulled within 61-60 at halftime and then smashed the Lakers in the second half with physical, relentless drives to the rim. They outscored Los Angeles, 70-47, after the break.
The surge was led by Tatum, who scored 34 of his 37 points after the first quarter and has now crafted consecutive strong performances after a chilly start to his season. Head coach Ime Udoka said he stressed to Tatum the importance of making quick decisions. When Tatum holds the ball too long, defenses have extra time to swarm him and turn a possession into a chore.
But when Tatum attacks more urgently, he is a handful.
“We liked some of the matchups he had,” Udoka said. “He could use his size. But he took advantage of his height in isolations, post ups, pick-and-rolls. So when he’s extra aggressive like that, he gets downhill, there’s a crowd that he draws.”
That aggression rubbed off on the rest of the team, too. The Celtics attempted 20 free throws in the fourth quarter. Whenever the Lakers eased up, they paid the price.
“Giving up 38 points in the first quarter is something that we never want to do,” Tatum said. “But it’s basketball and things happen, so, can’t control everything. But how you respond kind of just shows your character.”
With the win, the Celtics crept back to .500 for the fourth time this season. They’ll have an excellent chance to move past this mark for the first time all year when the Thunder visit TD Garden on Saturday night.