The way the Celtics dismantled the rival Los Angeles Lakers on Monday at TD Garden almost makes the past few weeks of abysmal play forgettable.
This was the Celtics team that won 10 consecutive games a few months ago and was on pace for 62 wins before adversity, complacency, and inconsistency set in. Six losses in their past eight games, four of those defeats to teams with losing records, embarrassing home losses to Detroit and Phoenix, both shooting in the 60 percent range.
So this performance against the Western Conference-best Lakers, a 139-107 win in a game they didn’t trail for the final three quarters was shocking and unexpected, a masterpiece of a game by a team that didn’t look capable of such an effort just a day ago.
It was the Celtics’ largest margin of victory over the Lakers in 56 years.
What the victory does is reinvigorate a franchise that had doubted itself over the past two weeks. Any win was difficult to come by. Any opponent was the ’96 Bulls. That’s how losing skids feel in an unforgiving NBA. You have to earn your way out of slumps, and the Celtics picked the most unlikely opponent to regain their swagger, reminding themselves how talented they are when they are connected.
Five players scored in double figures, including Jayson Tatum with 27 points. Two months ago in Los Angeles, Tatum was the best player on the floor in a game against Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and the Los Angeles Clippers. On Monday it was the same against LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
By the time the Celtics extended their lead to 31 in the third quarter, the Lakers had run out of responses. Of course, any team with James is capable of a historic comeback, especially with the dominance he’s displayed here in Boston. But not even James could muster enough fortitude for a run. The Celtics shot nearly 56 percent from the field and 47 percent from the 3-point line.
Tatum played without thinking, which is critical for him. Jaylen Brown shook off his sprained right thumb and decided to counter James’s size and athleticism with his activity. Kemba Walker picked his moments. Gordon Hayward shook off his recent offensive issues and played with pace and confidence.
This was the team Celtics faithful saw in November and December. It sent a not-so-subtle message to the rest of the league of its capability when engaged and cohesive.
“This is what we should be on a nightly basis,” Walker said. “I know it’s what we would like to be. Hopefully, the way we played tonight and this win can help us in the future.”
It should at least let the Celtics know they’re capable of beating the elite teams. The Celtics and Dallas Mavericks are the only teams to beat the Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks this season.
Boston went 1-1 against those two clubs in the past four days. Against the Bucks, they looked awful for the first two quarters and then played inspired in the final two. On Monday, they responded from a quick 8-0 deficit to dominate a team that hasn’t been beaten this badly all season.
“Boston played extremely well, and they earned it,” James said. “Listen, it was a good old-fashioned butt-whooping, that’s all. They beat us on all facets of the game from outside, the interior, points from offensive rebounds was the main ingredients of this L.”
Monday’s result was the best-case scenario for a team looking for encouraging signs. When the Lakers announced Monday morning that Davis would return from a five-game injury absence, the Celtics looked cooked.
They showed no previous indication that they would be able to compete for 48 minutes with two of the league’s top five players — that was unless Tatum, Brown and Walker matched their prowess.
“Yeah, I mean, we needed to play well,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “You know, that doesn’t guarantee results, but we had a . . . like I said this morning, we had a great film session [Sunday] that was very much like there’s a lot of things that we can control, and control better than we have. That doesn’t guarantee you’re going to make shots, and things are going to go your way like this. We were fortunate to put the ball in the basket quite a bit, but we really competed on both ends. That was good. It’s good to be as close to full as we’ve been, from a health standpoint. I’m hoping that we can maintain that and build off of it.”
The Celtics play Wednesday against Memphis. They can’t possibly return to their lackadaisical ways. This game has to be a blueprint for how they approach the rest of the season, with the confidence they can truly not only compete with but beat the league’s best teams. Somehow the Celtics lost their edge, took their lighter opponents for granted, and picked up bad habits.
But with Walker and Brown healthy and their teammates realizing that if they don’t match the Lakers’ intensity they will get blown out, the Celtics played by far their best game of the season, an encouraging sign.
“It’s a great that we have to hold ourselves accountable to play with this type of energy and this type of effort every night,” Brown said. “It can’t just be against the Lakers. We’ve got to get up and play like that against Memphis. We have to be able be resilient, humbled, poised, and ready to move forward.”