A year ago at this time, as the Celtics were still finding their way through a surprisingly rocky season, the franchise’s decision makers were also dreaming of a brighter future that included the powerhouse foursome of Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, and Jayson Tatum.
The Pelicans were looking into granting Davis’s request for a trade prior to the February deadline. But since Boston was unable to acquire two players who were both on designated player rookie-scale extensions — Irving was the first — Boston’s only hope was that New Orleans would wait until the summer to trade the superstar big man, when Irving would ideally be on a new deal and the restriction would no longer be in place.
All along, the Lakers lurked as Boston’s primary, if not only, competition for Davis. So, last winter, the Celtics’ brass tried to persuade the Pelicans that it would be worthwhile to let the February deadline pass without sending Davis anywhere. When that happened, there was relief within Boston’s organization. Maybe they had a chance.
But the dream crumbled quickly after that.
After the Celtics were eliminated by the Bucks in the conference semifinals, the Pelicans agreed to trade Davis to the Lakers anyway, in part due to Boston’s reluctance to include Tatum in the offer. Internally, the Celtics had concerns that Davis could leave Boston after one season and did not want to be left with a bare cupboard.
Then Irving agreed to join the Nets, Horford bolted to the 76ers, and the Lakers were the ones who were assembling the super team.
With James and Davis at the helm, Los Angeles (34-8), one year removed from missing the playoffs completely, is on pace to win 66 games this season. And, on Monday night, that group will come to TD Garden, providing Boston an up-close reminder about what could have been.
“[Davis] is having an amazing season,” Celtics center Daniel Theis said. “He’s a mismatch. He’s playing the 4, so smaller guys are guarding him. He can shoot, he can post up. So, we’ll see. I don’t know if he’s going to play, but it’s going to be interesting if they have the whole team, and hopefully we have the whole team to go against them.”
This season, Davis is averaging 27.1 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks. There is a chance he will not face the Celtics, however, as he has missed the Lakers’ last five games because of a bruised tailbone. The team said he was close to returning against the Rockets on Saturday night, so two more days of rest could end up being enough.
Even without Davis, though, this James-led group has shown that it is still quite dangerous.
“I think we all know the kind of challenge that they’re going to pose,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “If we don’t come ready it’s going to be another long night for us. I expect everyone in this locker room to be ready and locked in, but we’ve got to take it to another level Monday.”
The Celtics have lost three games in a row and six of their last eight, so the Lakers are probably not the ideal opponent to face. However, grabbing a win could go a long way toward setting Boston back on the right path.
“Especially after these last three games, coming in on Monday with a big game against the Lakers, a rivalry, it’s a chance,” Theis said. “It’s a chance for us to step up again and play Celtics basketball, and hopefully get out with a win and start a streak of winning.”
Theis said it will be essential for the Celtics to avoid another slow start. Too often this year, he said, Boston has looked up at the scoreboard and seen an early deficit that required plenty of digging just to get the game back to where it was when it began.
The Lakers will pose a new challenge in this situation, too. They have pounced after tipoff this season, outscoring opponents by 12.6 points per 100 possessions in the opening quarter, the third-best net rating in the league. The Celtics, meanwhile, are outscoring opponents by just 0.2 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter.
The task will be slightly less difficult if Boston actually has all of its starters available. Jaylen Brown has missed the last two games with a sprained thumb and Kemba Walker missed Saturday’s loss to the Suns due to knee soreness.
Coach Brad Stevens said Saturday that Brown appeared on track to return soon. While Walker’s knee pain is not considered serious, his status for Monday was a little less clear.
“It’s just hard when we’re missing guys,” Theis said. “Every game somebody is missing right now, so I hope we’re going to get the whole team back and we’re going to have a long stretch playing with each other. But it’s hard. We’ve just got to be connected and trust the system.”