The Lakers and Celtics met in a Sunday showcase in Los Angeles on ABC’s marquee national TV broadcast and the game more than lived up to the billing as the West’s top team and the East’s No. 3 team went down to the wire at Staples Center.
It was the Lakers who jumped out to an early lead, but Boston clawed their way back, eventually taking a seven-point advantage in the third quarter on the back of a virtuoso performance from Jayson Tatum, who had 41 points in 37 minutes against the Lakers to tie his career high for points in a game. Tatum caught fire in the third quarter, torching whoever got his assignment, from opposing guards and wings to Anthony Davis on switches, who he hit a pair of stepback threes against.
The Lakers charged back to tie things up going to the fourth and the two teams traded runs in the final period, with Davis, LeBron James, and Tatum all playing key roles. The third-year wing was quieted by the Lakers defense, who sent quick doubles and blitzed him in pick-and-rolls to force the ball out of his hand, taking advantage of the lack of other ball-handlers on the floor with Kemba Walker out with a knee injury. It was an approach Tatum likely hasn’t had to deal with too much, and it caused some problems for the Celtics offense, knocking them out of the rhythm they established in the third.
As Frank Vogel explained to reporters after the game, it’s something the Lakers have been working on executing better, citing the loss to Damian Lillard and the Blazers a few weeks back and now as examples of the growth they’ve taken on the defensive end in taking a hot player out of the game better.
“This is the ever-evolving, new NBA, the modern NBA. The way teams can hurt you,” Vogel said. “Our defense has to continue to evolve. I thought we did tonight. I thought we had a big growth step. The last time a player got hot like that, Dame Lillard, we left here with a loss. We develop a part of our scheme to double team a hot player like that, the way we guard James Harden. When a guy gets really going the way he was, we went into some of those roles and we were able to do a better job down the stretch.”
That attention offered a glimpse at where Tatum still has room to improve his game, as he has a tendency to catch the ball and size up the defense, allowing time for that help to come and force the ball out of his hands. Typically, with Walker on the floor, teams can’t do that, but in this game, the Lakers may have offered up something of a blueprint in the fourth for how to attack Tatum when Kemba’s not with him. That said, it also gave Tatum some tape to look at and work on attacking quickly, like he did on this catch on the wing where he caught the ball and drove immediately, beating Kyle Kuzma off the bounce and spinning through the lane as help was late in getting there.
Unfortunately for Tatum and the Celtics, his monster showing was not enough to get the win, as Davis posted 32 points and 13 boards for the Lakers and LeBron finished with 29 points, nine assists, and eight rebounds — including what ended up being the game-winner, as he hit a filthy turnaround fadeaway over Brown to take a one shot advantage.
While it was a thrilling game, both teams also dealt with some frustrations in the form of questionable officiating, with each seeing pretty clear goaltends go uncalled, a key incorrect call of Jaylen Brown stepping out of bounds when he was very much in, and just overall questionable whistles (and non-whistles) from the crew. The nerves were also evident, with some sloppy turnovers and missed shots at the rim by both teams down the stretch, as both teams seemed to notice the tension of the moment, even in a regular season game.
In L.A., it serves as another proof point of how good you have to be to beat the Davis-LeBron tandem. They got encouraging play from Rajon Rondo, which has been rare this season, but the rotation around their star duo remains a question mark. Even with inconsistencies from the supporting cast, that duo simply bludgeons teams and makes the margin for error on the other side razor thin. That said, Tatum’s explosion shows the biggest defensive question mark they have, which is how will they defend sizable wings that can handle the ball and score — namely against a Clippers team with two of those types. They eventually figured out a blitzing defensive attack that worked, but they’ll have to hope Markieff Morris can bring them something they simply don’t have consistently right now.
For the Celtics, it’s a tough loss in that they had control at varying points and sloppiness (and, again, questionable officiating) late cost them. The late turnover on a throwaway after choosing not to call timeout and forcing the ball to Tatum was ugly, as was Gordon Hayward’s missed layup in the closing minute that would’ve bumped their advantage up two points. Still, Tatum’s play continues to be spectacular and hanging with the Lakers and being in a spot where they’re disappointed not to win that game without their All-Star point guard is encouraging.
Martin Rickman contributed to reporting on this story.
Written by: Uproxx