As Celtics forward Jaylen Brown rose and held the ball with two hands, he started to let out a primal scream before he had even completed the kind of play he later admitted was on his bucket list.
Lakers star LeBron James, who has put so many other players in so many similarly uncomfortable situations, now found himself the helpless one. He put up his right arm, and then his left, but really, at this point, it was like trying to stop a flood with a paper towel.
Brown continued to rise, continued to roar, and continued on until he had violently completed this dunk over James, a play that best encapsulated the Celtics’ 139-107 win that was as dominant as that score makes it look.
“I ain’t gonna lie, it was pretty nice,” Brown later said if the dunk. “It was pretty awesome.”
That dunk was similar to the Celtics’ play Monday, a cluster of energy and anger and relief. Boston was in the midst of its second three-game losing streak this month, inviting questions about whether its feel-good start to this season might have been a mirage.
And now the powerhouse Lakers were in town, a team with more than enough weapons to continue any team’s skid. But one thing made this game significantly different from the three losses that preceded it: This time, the Celtics had all of their best players on the court.
After the win, point guard Kemba Walker, who missed Saturday’s loss to the Suns because of a sore knee, was asked if this is a reminder of what this team can be. He subtly disagreed with the premise.
“This is what we should be on a nightly basis,” he said.
For Walker, this win snapped a long and unusual streak. The All-Star point guard had been 0-28 in his career against James, including the regular season and one playoff sweep. Of course, most of the Charlotte teams he played on were not very good.
On Monday, Walker pointed out that he is 1-28, before stopping and saying he is on a new team now and that his scoreboard should be reset at 1-0.
“I’m more excited about the way we played and the way we came out,” he said, “especially with the struggles that we had in the past, in the last couple weeks really. That’s what I’m more excited about.”
The Celtics were connected and powerful and aggressive. But as coach Brad Stevens often points out, everything looks better when shots just go through the hoop. In this case, the Celtics made 55.9 percent of their attempts overall and 47.1 percent of their 3-pointers. They are now 13-0 this season when making at least 39 percent of their shots from beyond the arc.
Jayson Tatum made another strong case to be named an All-Star for the first time. He poured in a game-high 27 points. Walker and Brown added 20 apiece, and Enes Kanter came off the bench and added 18 points and 11 rebounds, an important contribution against the Lakers’ towering front line.
The Lakers received good news earlier in the day when star forward Anthony Davis was cleared to return after missing five games with a bruised tailbone, but he was limited to 9 points and four rebounds in 23 minutes, and he looked like a player who had been sidelined for two weeks.
Nevertheless, the Celtics were in no position to feel sorry for Los Angeles. They have dealt with their own collection of maladies this season, and this January rut had ignited reasons for concern.
Stevens said that his team had a productive film session Sunday that revealed plenty of variables that his team should be able to control better than it had. Walker said ball pressure was the main one.
“When we’re really good, we’re up on the basketball and teams are operating from pretty far out,” Walker said. “When we’re bad, it’s obviously the opposite. Those guys were operating far out and we were just scrambling. Helping each other, talking, running all over the gym, just making a lot of hustle plays.”
That pressure helped ignite the Celtics in the opening quarter. After the Lakers needed just 55 seconds to pounce with a flashy and above-the-rim 8-0 run, the Celtics gained control in part by forcing six first-quarter turnovers. They then outscored the Lakers by 40 points over the final 47:05.
Boston led by 14 points at halftime, a margin that is good, but never safe against a team of the Lakers’ caliber. Stevens was pleased by the way his team struck once more, as it shot 66.7 percent from the field in the third quarter and led 104-80 at the start of the fourth.
The Celtics acknowledged that the high-profile presence of James and the Lakers gave this game extra juice. But the challenge now, they said, will be maintaining this intensity when less glossy opponents arrive.
“We have to hold ourselves accountable to play with this type of energy and this type of effort every night,” Brown said. “It just can’t be against the Lakers. We’ve got to get up and play like that against Memphis in a few days. We got to be able to be resilient, humble, poised, and continue to move forward.”