Brandon Boston Jr. showcases Clippers’ future and present in win over Celtics

Los Angeles Clippers guard Brandon Boston Jr. (4) dunks the ball during the first half.
Clippers guard Brandon Boston Jr. dunks during a 114-111 win over the Boston Celtics at Staples Center on Wednesday.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

It would usually count as a telling moment if a rookie, after only his second basket of the game, turned to his defender and mouthed something about his defense striking enough to warrant a technical foul.

But in the case of Brandon Boston Jr., the moment early in Wednesday’s second quarter wasn’t truly that surprising.

The 20-year-old from Georgia, once a star at Chatsworth Sierra Canyon High before falling to the 51st pick in July’s draft following a below-expectations season at Kentucky, is beloved by the Clippers because he contains multitudes. Bouncing on his toes, he cheers from the background for teammates during their games and postgame television interviews. Reflecting Wednesday morning on playing against LeBron James — otherwise known as the father of his former Sierra Canyon teammate, Bronny — for the first time, there was a wide smile and wonderment.


“I ain’t gonna lie,” he said. “It was crazy.”

The Clippers pulled away late to beat the Trail Blazers 102-90 on Monday in Portland to improve to 13-12 on the season.

All of the pinch-me giddiness ignores a fearlessness born out of training as a teenager against professionals for the past several summers. That technical he drew was because of a message he told Celtic Marcus Smart, an eighth-year pro.

“I just started going at him, just tell him I’m here, just letting him know that my presence is felt,” Boston said, “and that I’m not laying back for nobody.”

Through three quarters Wednesday, during the Clippers 114-111 victory against the Celtics at Staples Center — marking their first consecutive victories since Nov. 13 — he was the best Boston on the court.

He needed only 11 minutes to set a career high in scoring. He made an absurdly difficult, turnaround three-pointer to beat the halftime buzzer for a 12-point Clippers lead. And within 19 minutes, he had scored 23 points, including a pull-up three-pointer he celebrated by playing an air guitar while jogging back on defense. He finished with 27 points in 25 minutes, making nine of his 13 shots, to go with four steals. In franchise history only Eric Gordon and Lamar Odom have scored at least 27 points while age 20 or younger.

“He was excited at halftime,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “I was telling him there’s another half to play, so don’t get too excited.”

It was at halftime, after an 18-point second quarter, that Boston checked his phone, a fact he acknowledged with a sheepish grin. Messages were waiting from Rich Paul, his agent, and an uncle.

“Just, ‘Kill, keep going,’” he recalled them reading. “‘Make everybody pay.’”

The Clippers (14-12) are counting on Boston to be a piece of their future, a belief evident in their three-year contract with $2.5 million guaranteed, an amount nearly unheard of for a player taken in the 50s. But Boston also isn’t your typical late second-round pick, as he was considered an early lottery pick when he entered Kentucky, before a hand injury and brutal shooting efficiency led him to slip down draft boards. On Wednesday, he showed the past form that made him a can’t-miss recruit while looking like the Clippers’ present with leading scorer Paul George sitting because of an elbow bruise.

Despite the Clippers’ early runaway scoring to lead by 21 and a Celtics comeback that trimmed that lead to just three with one minute left, the takeaway was the sight of Boston translating the scoring with which he has lit up the G League into real NBA rotation minutes. He even heard some Celtics reserves calling him “Mr. 46,” an allusion to his 46-point G League performance on his birthday last month.

“He’s going to be great,” Nicolas Batum said. “We are going to need that on some nights.”

Said Lue: “Brandon powered us to this win.”

With George out, starting both Marcus Morris and Batum, his usual backup, left Lue with a conundrum of who to play at power forward off the bench. Early on he opted for surrounding center Isaiah Hartenstein with three guards and Boston. He made his first five shots, his potential so infectious that the crowd eventually began buzzing whenever Boston touched the ball.

Boston said he dedicated the game to Terrence Clark, his friend and Kentucky teammate who died in an auto accident in April in Los Angeles while training for the NBA draft.

“He always pushed me to be my best self so I always keep that in the back of my mind,” he said.

Hamstring tightness sidelined the Celtics’ second-leading scorer, Jaylen Brown, for a fourth consecutive game. Yet even without his 21.4 points per game, the team’s frontcourt size and scoring on the perimeter was enough for the Clippers to prioritize defense, starting Terance Mann (10 points, 10 rebounds) over Luke Kennard (15 points) for their sixth different lineup in the last seven games. Entering Tuesday, the Clippers’ defensive rating when Mann sat was worse by 3.7 points per 100 possessions than when he played, and his length took on greater importance when George was ruled out after an uncharacteristically short warmup while wearing tape over his elbow.

Lue said he could not recall when George injured himself but believed it was during a win Monday in Portland.

The Clippers had a long ride north to Sacramento, where they lost 104-99 to the Kings. It was Los Angeles’ first loss there since 2013.

In his place stepped Batum after a nine-game absence due to the league’s health and safety protocols. Batum said he felt sick after his last game, Nov. 19, before learning 45 minutes before tipoff two days later that he had a positive test for COVID-19. He was not cleared to leave his house until Dec. 3, and his appearance Wednesday came after only two 35-minute workouts and a one-day stay with the G League team.

“That was an interesting last couple of weeks,” he said.

Batum’s return was nine minutes in when he rolled his right ankle and left for the locker room with a grimace with eight minutes left in the third quarter and the Clippers’ leading by 13. The lead grew to 21, but by the time Batum returned with four minutes to play in the quarter it had been trimmed to 10. Within four more Boston possessions, a five-point lead was hanging by a thread with Celtics all-star Jayson Tatum holding scissors after his 12-point quarter.

“They got dunk after dunk after dunk,” Lue said. “It’s hard to win games like that.”

As the Clippers’ lead slowly wilted against the Celtics’ full-court press, Lue turned to his grown-ups for closing time, with Boston watching from the sideline for the final four minutes. Experience didn’t guarantee efficiency. Leading by four guard Reggie Jackson lost his dribble in a wrestling match with Smart, a turnover Tatum turned into a dunk with 24 seconds to play. Then Jackson made one of his two free throws with 12 seconds to lead by three.

Tatum scored 29, showing the blueprint Boston should hope to follow of a teenage prospect turned 20-something star. But his three-pointer heave in the final seconds did not land. It was Boston’s turn standing in front of the camera as the focus of a postgame interview.

“Always having fun,” he said. “That’s me.”