BOSTON – The shovels were out. The grave was dug.
And then the Celtics climbed out of it.
Championships are not won in January. Teams, all of them, inevitably go through funks. But entering Monday night's showdown against the Lakers, the Celtics were in a bona fide tailspin. Three straight losses. Six in the last eight. Juggernauts like Detroit and Phoenix had come to the Garden and tattooed them. Washington and Philadelphia clubbed them on the road.
LeBron James and the Lakers jetted into town ready to deliver a knockout blow.
Until the Celtics—at the risk of overextending the metaphor—punched back.
It was Boston 139, Los Angeles 107 in a game exactly as close as the score suggests. “It was a good, old=fashioned butt whooping,” James said. L.A. jumped out to an eight-point first-quarter lead. The Celtics erased it and eventually pushed their own lead to 34. Jayson Tatum (27 points) was brilliant. Jaylen Brown added 20, two coming from a poster-perfect dunk on James in the third quarter. Enes Kanter hopped off the bench and chipped in a tidy 18 points and 11 rebounds.
Boston made 55.9% of its shots and connected on 47.1% of threes, and the defense, maligned in recent weeks, limited the Lakers to 27% from beyond the arc.
“We really competed on both ends,” Brad Stevens said.
Said Kemba Walker, “This is what we should be on a nightly basis.”
Boston needed this. The Celtics have confounded expectations for much of the first half of the season. Kemba Walker filled the hole Kyrie Irving vacated. Tatum and Brown eagerly embraced leading roles. Despite the defection of Al Horford and the salary dump of Aron Baynes, the defense ranked among the elite. Optimists pegged the Celtics as one shrewd trade or a buyout pickup away from being a title contender.
It was all probably a bit too optimistic. The Celtics offense certainly has potential. Walker should be an All-Star starter, Brown and Tatum are fighting for another spot, and Gordon Hayward is as sharp as he has been since his injury. Kanter is a reliable scorer in the paint.
“He’s a monster down there,” says Tatum.
The defense, though, is another matter. At some point, the loss of Horford and Baynes catches up. The Celtics are physical on the perimeter. “They got some football players,” Bulls coach Jim Boylan marveled earlier this month. Marcus Smart is an annual contender for the NBA’s All-Defensive Team. Brown and Tatum have made strides. They are aggressive, force a bunch of turnovers and can switch all over the floor.
“I haven’t seen any drop off in their physical toughness from last year,” said Boylan. “They are terrific at taking the ball from you. That gets them out in transition and energizes their group … if you look at the teams that win, they have elite two-way players. Boston is one of them.”
There is no margin for error, however. Daniel Theis has been solid, Kanter better than anyone could have hoped, but there are levels here. Derrick Rose broke through Boston’s front line, getting into the paint, carving the Celtics up for 22 points. DeAndre Ayton took advantage of Boston’s smallish frontcourt to score 26 points in the Suns' win. When the team struggles defensively, Stevens laments the lack of force it plays with. At a film session on Sunday, Stevens reminded his players that were a lot of things they could control that they need to be better at.
Monday night was a reminder of how good they can be. Tatum is a force offensively. After a sluggish shooting start, his field goal percentage has ticked up for the third month in a row. Against the Lakers, he banged in five of his eight three-point attempts. Brown’s shooting percentages have soared as well, and his dunk over James drew comparisons to Tatum’s slam over James in the 2018 conference finals.
“Jaylen is a hell of an athlete,” Tatum said.
But whose dunk was better, a reporter asked.
“I’m going to say me,” he replied.
Hayward may never play with the same spring he had in Utah, but Boston doesn’t need him to. They need him to be aggressive, like he was in the first quarter, drilling a 28-foot three to stop the Lakers' momentum, following it up with a three-point play to draw Boston closer. They need him to be a playmaker, which he has been in spurts, his 4.1 assists the highest average since his All-Star days.
Midway through the season and with the All-Star game around the corner, the Celtics continue to be one of the NBA’s wild cards. They still need a big man, and there are people internally who would love to see Wizards forward Davis Bertans in green. But just when you think the Celtics are ready to recede to the middle of the conference pack, they surprise. Just when it looks like the offseason losses will hamper them, they claw their way back.
Contender? Pretender? Something in between?
If Monday’s win proved anything, it’s that it will be a while before we sort that out.