More than half of the fourth quarter remained when the Lakers began to admit defeat.
LeBron James sat, so did Anthony Davis, and the Boston Celtics began pulling their starters too. They led the Lakers by 31 points — the largest deficit the Lakers had faced all season.
On the parquet floor against their hated rivals, there were few friendly faces, and much of the crowd at TD Garden kept the arena packed in garbage time to revel in the one-night derailing of one of the NBA’s hottest teams. The Lakers came into the game having won 10 of their last 11 games, including four of five without Davis, and the Celtics came into the game on a three-game losing streak, having lost six of their last eight.
But their recent history wasn’t predictive. The Celtics beat the Lakers, 139-107.
“It was just a good ol’ ...” James said before pausing. Then he continued. “Good ol’ fashioned butt-whooping. That’s all. They beat us in all facets of the game. Outside, interior, points off turnovers, offensive rebounds, so it’s the main ingredients in the L.”
The loss dropped the Lakers to 34-9, still best in the West, while the Celtics improved to 28-14, good for fourth in the East.
Davis returned and finished with nine points, two assists and four rebounds in 23 minutes. James scored 15 points with 13 assists and seven rebounds. Boston was led by Jayson Tatum, who scored 27 points with five rebounds and three assists. Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker also notched 20 points each for the Celtics. It was the first time in his career, out of 29 tries, that Walker won a game against James.
The Lakers were sharp for the first 90 seconds. It started with an alley-oop from James to JaVale McGee, then a three from Danny Green that turned into a four-point play. Davis got a fast-break dunk after Green blocked a shot by Walker and the Lakers were up 8-0.
But things began to turn. James committed a turnover, Gordon Hayward hit a three and before long the game was tied.
“If you couldn’t tell the level on film that you were getting ready to play against, you could feel it the first two minutes,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I mean, it was high level. They were coming at you. … I thought Gordon’s three was huge and then he got the driving layup. That settled us down. And then everyone took off from there.”
The Lakers trailed by three at the end of the first quarter and never led again.
“It’s hard to get back in a game when you’re not rebounding,” Davis said. “First half, they were shooting the ball well but rebounding is what kept them in the game and second-chance points, I think that kind of killed us.”
The deficit was 14 at halftime and the Lakers’ most critically needed halftime adjustment was easy to spot.
“Bring it — that was the halftime adjustment,” coach Frank Vogel said. “We didn’t bring it in the first half. So pick it, up, bring it. We tried to come out with some aggression in the second half, but credit the Celtics. They played exceptional. They’re a desperate team.”
There were four other opponents against whom the Lakers found themselves down by at least 20 points this season: Milwaukee, Dallas, Denver and Orlando. In each of those games, though, they found it in themselves to produce a run that shrank their deficit and showed their fight.
That never came against the Celtics.
Instead, their 14-point deficit at halftime grew to 24 by the end of the third quarter. In the fourth they trailed by as many as 34.
The Lakers have been remarkably consistent against teams with poor records — they are 22-1 against them. But their games against the NBA’s better teams have had peaks and valleys. They are 10-4 against the top seven teams in the Western Conference, but have lost to four of the top five teams in the East — Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston and Indiana.
James called the Lakers “a really, really good team and we want to continue to get better.”
“We’re not where we want to be going into March or April and beyond that,” he said. “We want to continue to get better, and … as a collective group, I don’t think we got better tonight. But I think there are things we can take away from the game. There’s always good in anything. You never get too high, never get too low. But Boston played extremely well tonight and they earned it.”