LOS ANGELES — Publicly, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla mostly shrugged off the two-game losing streak his team brought into Tuesday’s matchup against the Lakers. He said it was a long season and that it was important to keep results in perspective, especially this early.
“Every time we lose a game it can’t be, like, the end of the world,” he said after Boston was walloped by the Clippers Monday.
Privately, though, Mazzulla knew he needed more from his team. So before Tuesday’s game he gathered his top players and challenged them.
“Last game, I played like [expletive], and he told me that,” forward Jayson Tatum said. “He told me the way I play, the rest of the guys are going to follow. And he went down the line, went down to [Jaylen Brown], went down to [Marcus] Smart, said it was our responsibility, and that if we want to be champions, if we want to get to that point, it’s a responsibility each and every night.”
The message was received, even if there were some clunky moments along the way. The Celtics roared to a 20-point third-quarter lead before everything unraveled and the Lakers surged ahead by 13 with less than four minutes left in regulation.
It looked as if Boston’s first mini crisis of this season had arrived. But the Celtics regrouped, forced overtime during a chaotic final minute, and mostly controlled the extra session, as they seized a dramatic 122-118 win to conclude this six-game road trip.
“It looked like we were going to fail,” Smart said. “But we kept going.”
Tatum snapped out of his mild slump with 44 points on 15 for 29 shooting, none bigger than his baseline fadeaway over LeBron James that tied the score at 110 with 16.6 seconds left in regulation. Brown added 25 points and 15 rebounds.
Anthony Davis had 37 points and 12 rebounds to pace the Lakers, and James added 33 points. The Lakers feasted on a Celtics interior that was sorely missing Robert Williams and Al Horford. Los Angeles had 68 points in the paint and 26 fast-break points. Plenty came during the massive second-half surge that left the Celtics dazed.
The Celtics led, 88-74, with just over one minute left in the third quarter. Then the Lakers uncorked an 18-0 run that was highlighted by a pair of steals that led to monstrous dunks by James and Davis in the final minute.
“The Lakers are one of the best when they get it going,” Brown said. “Anthony, LeBron, [Russell] Westbrook seemed to just really push it down our throat.”
Boston’s scoring drought lasted six minutes, 26 seconds, but the struggles continued after that. A free throw by James with 4:25 left in regulation capped a 32-5 burst that made it 106-93. Mazzulla mostly let his team play through it.
But these Lakers are flawed, and these Celtics are confident, and there was one more comeback and collapse to come.
The Celtics’ fourth-quarter rally started with a Grant Williams 3-pointer that was immediately followed by a steal and layup by Smart. With the Celtics trailing by 5, Smart drilled a 3-pointer from the left arc with 45.7 seconds left, pulling the Celtics within two.
The Lakers were still in control when Davis went to the foul line with 28.2 seconds left. But Davis, who played the entire second half and all of overtime, missed them both. At the other end, Tatum hit a tough baseline fadeaway with 16.6 seconds left, and James’s desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer was not close.
“I thought the way we managed the last minute and 10 seconds of the game is what gave our guys life to just work together and execute,” Mazzulla said.
Westbrook struggled early but helped ignite the comeback by pushing the pace and getting to the rim. Mazzulla put 7-foot-2 center Luke Kornet on Westbrook late in the fourth. He stayed back, baited Westbrook with plenty of space, and all but begged him to shoot jump shots.
After starting overtime by scoring inside twice, Westbrook obliged, firing up a collection of long, open jumpers that had no chance.
“[The Lakers] could’ve just got the ball to AD, LeBron and got a better shot,” Smart said. “That’s what we wanted. We tip our hats off to Luke.”
With Boston trailing, 114-110, it unspooled a12-0 run that finished off the win. The Lakers were 0 for 5 from the 3-point line in the extra session.
“It took everything: clutch steals, rebounds, stops, baskets from everybody, everything we had to go the right way and give ourselves a chance,” Tatum said.
The Celtics return home still atop the NBA, at 22-7. A loss Tuesday would hardly have been crippling. But Mazzulla believes everything transpiring now will have value when games become more meaningful.
During this 4-2 trip, the Celtics experienced plenty of unfamiliar scenarios. They throttled the then-West-leading Suns, they were handed humbling blowout losses by the Warriors and Clippers, and then they were tested by their own collapse against the Lakers that was rectified before it was too late.
“This trip taught us a lot,” Mazzulla said, “in the sense of what we need to do to win games in different ways.”
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.