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About an hour before the Celtics faced the Lakers on Thursday, former Boston great Kevin Garnett stood on the court wearing jeans and a No. 9 Rajon Rondo Celtics jersey as he chatted with Rondo himself. This time, though, Rondo had come to TD Garden wearing the purple and gold that makes Boston fans nauseous.
Rondo crafted so many magical moments when he and Garnett were Celtics teammates. Garnett is retired now, and Rondo, who turns 33 later this month, has played for five teams since the Celtics traded him during the 2014-15 season.
But he is not done yet, and he proved that to a rowdy Garden crowd when he splashed an improbable 19-foot buzzer-beater in the scattered final moments, sending Los Angeles to a wild 129-128 win.
“It’s surreal,” Rondo said. “It’s unbelievable. I haven’t watched the replay yet but this is one I’ll be playing for the rest of my life. I was happy to be a part of it.”
Earlier in the day, Rondo had playfully tossed up jumpers on the empty parquet floor with his young son, Rajon Jr. And now, on that same court, he had silenced the fans who once roared for him.
The Lakers overcame an 18-point first-half deficit as well as a 6-point deficit in the final 85 seconds.
The Celtics appeared in control when Marcus Morris hit a corner 3-pointer that gave Boston a 124-118 with 1:24 left. But the Lakers quickly responded with a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope three that was followed by a LeBron James three with 49.2 seconds left.
After Celtics forward Jayson Tatum hit two foul shots with 34.7 seconds to play, Lakers forward Brandon Ingram found Kyle Kuzma for a three from the right arc with 18.5 seconds left that put Los Angeles ahead, 127-126. LA, the 29th-ranked 3-point shooting team in the league, was a menace in this game, making 22 of 41 shots from beyond the arc.
Kyrie Irving was struggling through one of his worst games of the year until he regrouped in the fourth quarter, and with 11.5 seconds left, his running 8-footer slid off the glass and in, providing a potential game-winner.
Both teams were out of timeouts, and Ingram attacked the basket and had his shot swatted by Al Horford. Tatum, Morris, and Tyson Chandler all got hands on the loose ball before it spun toward Rondo near the left arc. He had time only to catch it and shoot it, so that is what he did, swishing the 19-footer. The Celtics fans were silenced, and the sizable Lakers contingent celebrated.
After the buzzer sounded and the ball went in, James streaked toward Rondo and wrapped him in a hug as his teammates followed soon after.
“I practice those shots all the time,” Rondo said. “Couldn’t imagine it being here at the Garden though.”
Rondo finished with 17 points, 10 assists, and 7 rebounds, a vintage line score for him that looks so familiar here. James had 28 points, 12 rebounds, and 12 assists. It was an unusual game for many reasons, including the fact that Los Angeles shot significantly better from the 3-point line (53.7 percent) than it did from the foul line (7 for 18, 38.9 percent).
“We didn’t guard them tonight,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “And they made shots. You still have to make them, but we have to play a lot better defensively.”
Irving had 24 points and 8 assists for the Celtics, but made just 6 of 21 shots. Tatum added 22 points and 10 rebounds and Daniel Theis led a powerful effort by the bench, with 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting. Boston was 20 for 20 at the foul line.
When Thursday’s trade deadline passed and Anthony Davis remained a member of the Pelicans, the Celtics were relieved and the Lakers were probably disheartened. Los Angeles’s attempts to acquire the superstar forward had been rebuffed, and suddenly Boston emerged as the favorites to trade for Davis this summer, when an obscure rule that kept them from doing it now will no longer be relevant.
On Basketball: Celtics stand pat at trade deadline, but their rivals don’t
The Celtics and Lakers will surely jostle again when that time comes, but Thursday night’s game offered a high-profile chance for them to battle where their battles are more familiar, this time with Garnett, Red Sox slugger Mookie Betts, and a host of New England Patriots watching.
Boston entered having won 10 of 11 games, seemingly rounding into form as it pushed toward the playoffs. Los Angeles entered the game with its young players knowing that James had essentially hoped they would all be traded for Davis, coming off an embarrassing 42-point loss to the Pacers.
And the game, for long stretches, was as odd as this week has been. Irving, who earlier in the day was selected by James to play for his team at the All-Star Game, made just 3 of 18 shots through three quarters. And the Lakers could not miss from beyond the arc and could not score from the foul line.
But Boston blitzed to an 18-point lead, and it looked like Irving would have enough support to make up for his misfires.
Then the third quarter began, and the Lakers made 9 of 11 3-pointers. The early ones were open, and the later ones were not, but the ball kept going in either way. By the time Caldwell-Pope hit his team’s ninth trey of the period, the 18-point deficit had been transformed into a 92-87 Lakers lead.
The Celtics bounced back behind the shooting and hustle of a bench unit led by Theis, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown. Then Irving re-entered the game and found a rhythm. He made a layup, a 3-pointer, and two free throws over a 48-second stretch, as Boston pushed its lead to 119-113. But the Lakers still had some 3-pointers to make, and they still had Rondo.
“I think for Rondo, he couldn’t even dream about that moment,” James said. “To be back here in the Garden where he won a championship, where obviously he has so many memories of being here. And for him to get his hands on the ball at that moment and be able to knock that down, it was a storybook ending.”
More scenes from the game
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.