Relief came Thursday afternoon for many of the Lakers players who wondered all week if their team was going to send them to New Orleans.
Joy came Thursday night with a 129-128 victory over the Boston Celtics.
Rajon Rondo hit the winning jumper at the buzzer, and then his team engulfed him in a tiny purple-and-gold mosh pit on top of Lucky the Leprechaun in the middle of the court at the TD Garden. LeBron James lifted him into the air, they all shouted in his ear, and even Celtics legend Kevin Garnett got up out of his seat.
This building that meant so much to him saw the first game-winner of Rondo’s NBA career.
“I haven’t watched the replay yet, but this is one I’ll be playing for the rest of my life,” Rondo said. “I’ll never forget that.”
Thursday marked the end of a tense week for the Lakers. As the front office tried to acquire Anthony Davis, offering every player on the roster except James in some form or another, the Lakers struggled to keep that narrative from infecting their locker room. The cost was a 42-point loss to the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday night.
“I think after the deadline, I think they were able to relax,” James, who finished with a triple-double, said of his young teammates. “I think it just played a lot with their minds a little bit, and then after the 3 o’clock deadline, we all knew this is who we have and who’s going to be around. So, they were able to lock in and even with BI [Brandon Ingram] not shooting the ball extremely well tonight, his defense on Kyrie [Irving] and throughout on a lot of those guys was exceptional, and then Kuz [Kyle Kuzma] in the second half was tremendous. They are going to be big for us down the stretch.”
Said Kuzma: “I can actually pick up my phone and relax and text people. People wanna talk to me without asking about getting traded.”
James led the Lakers (28-27) with 28 points, 12 points and 12 rebounds, while Kuzma added 25 points. Each player made late three-pointers that helped the Lakers secure their win.
Irving led the Celtics (35-20) with 24 points, making only six of 21 shots. The loss snapped a five-game winning streak for Boston.
Down by as many as 18 points in the first half, the Lakers stormed back with impressive three-point shooting. In the third quarter alone, they made eight of 10 three-pointers to start and nine of 13 overall. They finished with 22 three-pointers, a franchise record for a single game.
The Lakers outscored the Celtics by 15 points in the third, 42-27, led by Kuzma’s 14.
With 1:24 left in the game, the Celtics had a six-point lead. But Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made a three moments later, then James followed with his own three-pointer from the corner to tie the score.
After Irving gave the Celtics a 128-127 lead with 11.5 seconds left, Ingram’s reverse layup was blocked by Al Horford, who couldn’t secure the rebound, and the ball ended up in the hands of Rondo, who secured a dream ending.
“I bet it meant the world,” Kuzma said.
Rondo is from Kentucky, but this is the place he calls home.
He was 20 years old when the Celtics traded for him on draft day in 2006 and the next year he became the kid brother to Boston’s Big Three — Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. They won a championship that year, with Rondo as their starting point guard, beating the Lakers in six games in the NBA Finals. Rondo cemented his place in Celtics lore.
Garnett sat courtside for Thursday’s game, wearing a Rondo Celtics jersey. When the announcer introduced Rondo, the crowd cheered, always thankful for their champions.
He left them stunned 2 hours 17 minutes later.
After the game, Rondo’s 7-year-old son, Pierre, asked him if that meant he would be on “SportsCenter” later that night. Pierre was too young when Rondo left Boston to truly understand what the moment meant to his dad.
“I grew up here,” Rondo said, exuding calm, authentic joy.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli