There was no doubt that after splashing 3-pointer after 3-pointer during his pregame workout that resembled a Mark McGwire batting practice session that LeBron James would make his return Friday against the Celtics.
Usually, James imposes his will on the Celtics. He has beaten Boston repeatedly over his illustrious career and he couldn’t possibly pass on the latest edition of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry.
James came out bursting with energy, seemingly ready to reclaim his crown as the best player in the NBA in one quarter. And then Anthony Davis, fresh off getting touched up for 47 points by Giannis Antetokounmpo, looked unstoppable in the opening period.
The Lakers looked as if they would batter the Celtics now that they were healthy. The mirage lasted just one quarter. After being staggered early in the season, their effort questioned, big leads blown, and porous fourth-quarter execution, Jayson Tatum and the Celtics slapped back at their arch-rival, playing a brilliant final three quarters as this team appears ready to run off some victories.
Their 130-108 win, with Celtics greats Bill Russell and Paul Pierce in attendance, was their best effort of the season because it came against a team that, like them, is desperate to regain its swagger.
The return of James, who missed 10 games with an abdominal strain, was supposed to be the answer. A few weeks shy of his 37th birthday, James is not quite the same player of those Cleveland and Miami days. He doesn’t attack the rim nearly as often. He relies on a crafty stepback jumper and stellar court vision.
In one sequence, he was 1-on-1 with Al Horford and a decade ago he drives past Horford for an easy dunk. This time, he chose a stepback jumper that swished through the hoop. But James’ presence in the Lakers’ lineup did little to deter Tatum from attacking the basket at will, or Horford from controlling the paint defensively, or Marcus Smart from making astute floor decisions.
A team that sometimes is obsessed with the 3-point shot decided to attack the basket because the Lakers lack a true rim protector. They scored repeatedly at the rim, especially with Davis on the bench.
Los Angeles’s method to return to championship form was going old, chasing aging veterans who could hopefully mesh together for one final run, sort of a basketball version of “Going in Style.” So far it’s failing miserably as the Lakers are 8-9 with a swiss cheese defense and none of their stars playing particularly well.
What stood out about Friday was Tatum’s approach. Against a team full of future Hall of Famers — James, Davis, Carmelo, Westbrook, Howard — Tatum was the best player on the floor. There was no question about that.
What’s changed about Tatum the past few years is he’s fully confident he belongs among the elite players in the league. He’s no longer surprised when he scores easily in James, who defended him on several possessions, or he glides past Anthony or shoots flawlessly over Davis.
The Celtics got an erratic Tatum in the first handful of games and in the first quarter, he started slow and got into foul trouble. He responded with 34 points on 12-for-21 shooting in the final three quarters. The Lakers had no answers and Tatum kept relentlessly attacking.
Tatum said during his first All-Star game two years ago in Chicago when he shared the Team LeBron locker room with Davis, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden; he realized he belonged amongst the game’s great players.
“I think ever since then, I’ve kind of took that approach that I belonged in that locker room,” Tatum said. “And from now on, whether anybody else believes it, I always tell myself when I get on the floor, I’m the best player. I just remember vividly from that game, I kept that mentality with me.”
This was perhaps the biggest development from this game. Tatum was more interested in kicking James’ butt on the floor than jersey swapping off the floor. Even without cohort Jaylen Brown, Tatum took full responsibility for his team’s fate, and Friday he got help from Marcus Smart, Dennis Schröder, and Horford.
And it was Tatum’s activity prior to those buckets falling that was most impressive. He was active defensively, getting hands in passing lanes, chasing down rebounds, and providing resistance in the post. It was Tatum’s most complete game of the season against many of his childhood idols.
But that doesn’t matter anymore. If the Celtics are going to be successful, they need this “Eye of the Tiger” Tatum, the one who fiercely seeks to prove he’s one of the best. The one who can carry his team in more than scoring.
“I may not be the most emotional person but when I step on the floor, I don’t care if it’s Brad Beal, I’m trying to go at him,” Tatum said. “And that’s somebody that I grew up with. That’s that mentality that you have when you step on the floor, it’s my team against yours and after the game it’s whatever but in these 48 minutes, I ain’t got nothing for you.”