While Russell Westbrook was fully dressed, ordering some late-night eats from a Celtics’ locker room attendant and taking a photo with Joe Mazzulla’s son, LeBron James was streaming in the Lakers locker room, his feet still in a bucket of ice, talking to himself.
He pondered aloud why he didn’t get the foul call when he drove to the rim for the potential game-winning bucket. He wondered why the duo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum combined for 22 free throws and he attempted just five.
One of the greatest players in the history of the game, a man who will be the NBA’s all-time leading scorer in about 10 days, feels slighted by the officials despite his accomplishments. The Celtics’ 125-121 win over the Lakers on Saturday was filled with controversial calls and bizarre moments, but none more questionable than the final seconds of regulation.
After the Celtics tied the game on a controversial (that word will be used frequently here) call on Jaylen Brown’s putback and foul on Patrick Beverley, a call that was made seconds after the bucket, James wanted to end matters with a physical drive to the basket.
Three Celtics converged and James cleared all three and attempted to lay the ball off the backboard, when Tatum slapped his forearm. The ball caromed off the backboard to Tatum. Overtime. James reacted with utter disbelief, going through stages of grief: anger, complaining and then kneeling near the TD Garden free throw line in an attempt to control his emotions.
The Celtics would pull away in overtime, and they found a way to win with the benefit of some calls but also solid late-game execution. They snapped a three-game losing streak but still own the NBA’s best record. Their chances of returning to the NBA Finals remain strong.
The Lakers, meanwhile, are in a desperate state. They are playing better but a putrid start and inconsistent stretches could cost them a chance at even reaching the playoffs despite LeBron’s brilliance at age 38. He sounded like a despondent man, realizing every win is critical, especially on nights when they play so well.
The Lakers are one of many teams who have said they played one of their better games against the Celtics. Boston is taking the opponents’ best shots.
“It’s challenging,” said James, who is 20th in the NBA in free throw attempts per game at 6.2. “I don’t get it. I’m attacking the paint just as much as any of the other guys in this league that are shooting double-digit free throws a night. I don’t understand it.”
James said his reaction wasn’t just a byproduct of the missed call on Tatum, one that official Eric Lewis admitted when he spoke with the Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach after the game, but years of what he feels is disrespect by officials. James averages 7.8 free throws per game in his career. Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid averages 9.8.
“It’s been building,” he said. “You’ve seen some of the games we’ve lost this year with late-game missed calls. We had the opportunity to win the game. I don’t understand that (the league) is doing. I watch these games every single day and I don’t see it happening to nobody else. It’s just weird.
“We don’t have room for error. It’s one of the best games we’ve played all year and to fall on somebody else’s non-judgment is ridiculous.”
Tatum, on the other side, playing for a team that’s coasting to the playoffs, enjoying a sparkling season despite some recent speed bumps, couldn’t help but smile when asked if he actually fouled James.
“The last two minutes and overtime was a blur,” Tatum said, unable to contain his glee. “I don’t really know what happened. I gotta watch the game, watch the film because everything was happening so fast. But we moved on and got the win. That’s all I gotta say about that.”
The Lakers will never be sympathetic figures, especially not in Boston. But a team that has all the advantages to sign free agents and brought two top 75 players off the bench Saturday – Westbrook and Anthony Davis – claim they are not getting treated fairly.
“It’s (expletive),” Davis said. “It’s unacceptable and I guarantee you nothing will happen to the refs. We got cheated tonight. It was a blatant foul. Pat got all ball on Brown and Bron got smacked across his arm. The refs were bad, they were bad tonight.
“We did a good job on both ends of the floor and to come here, and they’re the best team in the league, and do that and get cheated like that is a tough pill to swallow.”
They got some tough calls Saturday. Tatum fouled James. But Patrick Beverley also hit Brown in the head on that pivotal and-1 to tie the game in regulation. It also came down to execution. Beverley had a chance to seal the game with a free throw with 14.8 seconds left for a 4-point lead and missed it, setting up Brown’s 3-point play.
James had a legitimate case for his foul. But the Lakers’ “the whole world is against us” mentality is indicative of a team that needs nearly everything to go right to win. And it didn’t on Saturday. The Celtics, meanwhile, prevailed despite some ghastly offense and a porous game from Jayson Tatum.
They took advantage of their break on the James non-call and dominated overtime. The Lakers were gassed and demoralized, believing they should have already won and unable to gather their poise and focus after adversity.
That’s the difference between these two storied franchises in 2023. The Celtics have the ability to recover from misfortune while the Lakers lack the resiliency.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.