LOS ANGELES — The most important aspect of the Celtics’ 120-107 win over the Lakers on Saturday was probably that it felt so normal.
Boston was facing an undermanned and overmatched Los Angeles team that had mostly been stripped down to just having LeBron James. Of course, there are times when just having James is still enough. But this is not the LeBron who played 48 minutes in Game 7 of the conference finals against the Celtics last season.
The Lakers’ recent free-fall has all but cemented the fact that they will miss the playoffs, and they seem to have decided that limiting James will be the best path to better NBA draft lottery odds and refreshing one of the most overworked players in NBA history. James, who averages 35.6 minutes per game, played just 27:46 on Saturday. He took a seat as his team was mounting a third-quarter comeback, perhaps because that was best for everyone.
“We’re used to him being on the court at all times of the game,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “But we’re not playing against just LeBron. We’re playing against a team, so you still have to go out there and play even when he’s not on the court.”
Yes, the Lakers did field a team. But it was not one that was very fearsome. Earlier Saturday, Brandon Ingram was ruled out for the rest of the season with deep venous thrombosis. Lonzo Ball has been sidelined since Jan. 21 with an ankle injury, and Kyle Kuzma missed Saturday’s game with a sore ankle, too.
But the Celtics have had myriad issues of their own this season, and they were certainly not in a position to feel sorry for anyone, particularly not after the Lakers overcame an 18-point deficit to win in Boston one month ago. That defeat sent the Celtics into a tailspin in which they lost 7 of 10 games and faced valid questions about whether their expectation-filled season might disintegrate by late April.
Now, though, they appear to have steadied themselves before it is too late. They are 3-0 on this four-game road swing, including impressive victories over the Warriors and Kings. They will have a chance to close out a perfect trip when they face the Clippers on Monday.
When the Celtics were struggling, Kyrie Irving mostly shrugged and said that wins and losses in the regular season are not all that meaningful. Now that the team is thriving again, he has stayed even and maintained that stance. “People barely remember it,” he said Saturday.
But he is happier about the direction the team is headed. And he knows there is still work to do.
“Everybody has to step up, but it starts with me, and it starts with my energy out there and my spirit,” Irving said. “And when everyone’s on the same page, we’re a different team. We weren’t doing that consistently throughout this season, and now it’s more important than ever for us to have connectivity and be together, and that’s where my focus is.”
Irving had 30 points on 12-of-18 shooting, along with 7 rebounds and 5 assists. Marcus Morris added 16 points and 7 rebounds. The Celtics shot 51.6 percent from the field.
James had 30 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds despite having his playing time limited. Irving asked to be traded from Cleveland two seasons ago in large part because he had grown tired of playing in James’s shadow. The two have mended fences a bit this season, though, and after Saturday’s game Irving said he knew it must not be easy for his former teammate to have a season unfold like this.
“I can only imagine,” Irving said. “I feel for him . . . He’s always been a championship contender. And he’s such a great player, such a great teammate. When you’re not eligible to qualify for the playoffs, it’s hard. And I can only imagine. So, like I said, I feel bad.”
Boston’s offense, which has been crisp and free-flowing during this mini resurgence, regressed to more isolation play for stretches in the first half, and it did not help that the 3-pointers did not go in.
The Lakers, rotating relatively unknown players like Alex Caruso, Isaac Bongo, and Johnathan Williams through the game, lingered nevertheless. And back-to-back dunks by Williams actually gave Los Angeles a 39-38 second-quarter lead.
But then James had a difficult stretch that included a pair of missed free throws and an air-balled 3-pointer, and the Celtics pushed ahead with a quick 7-0 run before taking a 57-47 lead to halftime.
Boston surged ahead, 68-51, early in the third quarter behind three Smart 3-pointers before Los Angeles flirted with another big comeback behind James and Moritz Wagner. The two spearheaded an 18-6 Lakers run that made it 74-69, but then they both went to the bench with 4:44 left. The Celtics promptly connected on four of their next five 3-pointers and stretched their lead back to 93-76 at the start of the fourth. The win was never really in doubt after that.
“We have enough pieces, we have enough guys on this team to make a very deep run in the playoffs,” Irving said. “Right now it just starts by just finishing off the regular season very, very strong, and feeling good in the playoffs. That’s where the fun is.”