When the Los Angeles Lakers walked into the TD Garden on late Monday afternoon, Jan. 20, it was the first time in nearly seven years that they would meet the Celtics as a certain playoff team.
Sure the Celtics and Lakers are always entertaining, but Los Angeles has not reached the playoffs since 2013, and that includes the final three years of the great Kobe Bryant’s career. The Lakers-Celtics rivalry had taken a beating, resembling nothing of the intense matchups of two of the NBA’s greatest franchises.
On this Jan. 20 night, however, the Lakers came to Boston with a 34-8 record, the No. 1 team in the Western Conference with superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis on their roster.
The Celtics won the nationally televised game, 139-107, Boston’s biggest win over the Lakers in more than 50 years. And while the game wasn’t as competitive as advertised, it was refreshing to watch the two teams return to the NBA’s elite and clash.
Sunday is the rematch at Staples Center. It’s the first Lakers-Celtics game since Bryant’s tragic passing. The Lakers will be motivated, with James and a healthy Davis, who was limited in the first matchup as he was coming off a back injury.
The NBA is a better league when the Lakers and Celtics are vying for the championship and this game could be the clear indication that the rivalry is back.
When asked if he was excited about the rematch, Celtics forward Jayson Tatum said: “Yeah, it will be fun. It’s always fun going against the Lakers.”
What is now intriguing about the rivalry is the presence of James and Davis. During the past few years, as Bryant aged and the Lakers were in constant makeover with roster, coaches, and front office members, the Celtics were rising as a franchise.
Boston has reached the playoffs the past five seasons (including twice going to the Eastern Conference finals) following a transition year after hiring Brad Stevens. The Celtics have won 7 of 11 matchups since the 2014-15 season, with Boston winning the past two at Staples Center.
In last season’s game in Los Angeles, the lottery-bound Lakers rested James most of the fourth quarter as the Celtics pulled away with the 120-107 win as it fought for playoff seeding.
The Lakers ramped up this offseason by adding Davis in a trade with the New Orleans Pelicans, as well as signing Danny Green and Avery Bradley. The result has been the best record in the Western Conference.
Nothing has been won just yet, but the Lakers have regained their swagger, thanks to adding star power.
“It feels good to be in a winning situation,” Davis said. “I think being No. 1 in the West, we have something good going over there in LA. I’m excited about our team. I’m excited about our chemistry. I’m excited for the second half of the season and see what we can accomplish. We still have a lot to work on, but right now we’re doing pretty fine.”
The passing of Bryant and his impact on the rivalry cannot be understated. He was a part of two Lakers-Celtics finals, including the 2010 Game 7 win at Staples Center. That 83-79 loss is a game former Celtics coach Doc Rivers said he would never get over. Bryant exacted revenge from the 2008 loss and won NBA Finals MVP.
Monday, the day after the Celtics-Lakers matchup, Bryant will be memorialized in the same arena with several Lakers and Celtics players expected to attend.
It’s been nearly a month since the tragic helicopter crash, but Bryant’s presence will be felt in Staples Center on Sunday.
“We’re doing OK,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “It still hurts. It’s still something that’s going to stay with us the rest of the year and forever. But, as time goes by, you get more locked into staying in the moment and there’s healing elements to competing in the game of basketball. Our guys have done a great job of that.”
Vogel, a former Celtics video coordinator, is a surprise entry into this rivalry. A year ago he was out of work, just recently fired by the Orlando Magic and considered a long-shot applicant for the Lakers job. When Luke Walton was removed, the Lakers had no natural successor for coach.
Vogel was hired by the club, which also added former NBA coaches Jason Kidd and Lionel Hollins, fueling speculation one would eventually replace Vogel had he failed early. The Lakers have developed into one of the best teams under Vogel.
“It’s a big honor, it really is, especially to represent the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the iconic franchises in the league,” he said. “It means a lot to me. We have a lot of work for the rest of the regular season. It is our goal to win the championship this year. Obviously, a lot of things have to fall our way for that to happen. There’s a little bit of pressure, but there’s pressure with every team.
“We have two of the best players in the world and a great support system around them. A lot of things have to fall your way.”
The rivalry is back because it’s an important game for both teams. The Celtics are chasing the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and a more favorable first-round playoff series. The Lakers are trying to prove they can be consistent. The Lakers are also being chased by the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, and Los Angeles Clippers for that No. 1 seed.
Staples Center will be electric on Sunday. Celtics-Lakers on a Sunday afternoon 12:30 p.m. local start. The only thing missing will be Dick Stockton and Tom Heinsohn on the call. Historically, the matchups brings out the best in both sides.
Former Celtic Kevin Garnett, who actually revealed he considered joining the Lakers when the Minnesota Timberwolves made him available by trade in 2007, still reveres those matchups with Bryant. There was such a mutual respect for each other, the name on the front of the jerseys, and the tradition of the matchup.
That was never lost on Garnett.
“Before I got to Boston I would always battle with the Lakers and it was the premier game,” he said. “Playing Shaq [Shaquille O’Neal] was always entertaining. It was always the pinnacle. Kobe and I knew each other. Shaq and I would befriend each other. The matchups were always high end, it was always electric. I always felt like it was on demand.
“Wasn’t a lot of [expletive] talking, but it was a lot of buckets. A lot of attacking. It was wind both ways. Every time you played Kobe, it was nothing less than electric. And it was all about wins and rings.
“When I got to Boston, it was just different times. I always enjoyed playing against those guys. It was a challenge to play those guys, because it was so hard to win.”