That was a very bad game.
Usually, I’d have a more descriptive word for whatever brand of incompetence the Celtics were selling last night than “bad,” but that loss was so baffling, so utterly rancid that “bad” will have to do for now.
The Celtics have officially christened a new chapter in their rivalry with the Lakers, forever known as the “Random time in February when the Celtics thought they could sleepwalk through a game and lost” game. I’ll be sure to tell my kids about this one.
The city of Los Angeles has completed its assault on TD Garden in extremely upsetting fashion, though depending on your worldview, there’s probably a little more good to take away than you think there is. But there’s a whole lot of bad too, so let’s not waste any more time. The Celtics wasted plenty to go around.
1. The worst kind of Celtics
It’s not as though that game was a complete mail-in, one that would compel me to perhaps forego trying to take anything away from it at all. Surprisingly—removing the emotional and optical calamity of losing to the Los Angeles Lakers at home when both James and Davis sat—the Celtics did some solid work in the third and fourth quarters before throwing in the towel.
But whatever good they managed to produce was drastically outweighed by the boulder of ineptitude they threw in their backpack. The Celtics threw away possessions in ways I didn’t even think were possible, repeatedly got out-hustled and out-executed and failed over and over to exploit any advantages they had on offense.
But worst of all were the shades of the Celtics team that allowed themselves to be buried by an inferior team that had an above average shooting night. The Lakers’ reserve squad played a very impressive game, especially given their two best players by a country mile weren’t active. But at halftime, the Celtics just decided that the universe wasn’t going to allow them to win the game.
Blame whatever you want. Plenty will see the free throw disparity as evidence that the Celtics got jobbed, and plenty more will take one look at the Lakers’ 53 percent mark from three and chalk this one up to a plain-old variance loss.
But there is a difference between getting beat by variance and letting it beat you. For four quarters, the Celtics used the fact that Austin Reaves was lighting the world on fire as an excuse to stand around on offense and not hustle for lose balls. The Celtics got the best version of these Lakers, but these specific LeBron-and-AD-less Lakers should not have been able to keep up under any circumstances. The Celtics handed it to them.
2. Getting in your own head… in the first quarter
This is a vintage Jayson Tatum move. It’s his patented I-am-going-to-commit-a-foul move, where he decides that since the refs refused to give him a call on a drive, he is going to whack somebody come hell or high water.
I’ll concede that, as the night progressed, there was a lot to be frustrated by on the free throw front. The Lakers shot 24 meaningful free throws while the Celtics shot 5. That’s a pretty big difference in a game decided by nine, but it’s not like the Celtics earned any more calls either.
But take a look at the clock when Tatum does his I-am-going-to-commit-a-foul move. There are 8 minutes left in the first quarter. The Celtics are winning 8-6. This kind of body language and lack of effort is plainly unacceptable at that point in the game.
My only explanation for why Tatum did that was he was taken aback by how hard the Lakers were trying. It felt like he and the rest of the squad took James’ absence as a signal that the Lakers would be capitulating and moving onto their next stop in New York. Nothing of the sort happened.
I was honestly shocked Tatum didn’t get ejected from this game, as he’s a specialist at making hand gestures at referees and picking up a pair of technicals when he feels the whistle isn’t going his way. Referees don’t decide games, but players can convince themselves they do. I have a feeling that several Celtics did, Tatum included.
3. Three-point insanity
The Lakers shot a pretty absurd 53 percent from three last night. They hit their fair share of wide-open shots, but they also hit a few of these:
Like, come on.
If that shot was the only one like that, I’d excuse it as a once-per-game prayer at the end of the shot clock. But Reaves was pulling up from 30 feet like he was Damian Lillard all night, moving off ball and resetting the defense like Stephen Curry. And his teammates were hitting and producing wide open looks too, building and maintaining a lead throughout the night.
In my preview of the game yesterday, I mentioned how the Celtics generate the highest percent of their total points from three, while the Lakers generate the lowest percent on the season. That stat was useful in explaining why the Lakers had been unable to keep up with explosive offensive teams all year: they simply didn’t make efficient use of the most valuable shot in basketball.
Here’s a science experiment: what happens when you take the team least statistically reliant on threes and make them hit shots at a statistically outlandish rate?
Well, scientists have concluded that it tends to confuse their opponent. The Celtics are an organization built on analytics, likely realizing that the Lakers would not be able to rely on threes to make up for their meteoric talent deficit. But then they did anyway, and the Celtics were caught flat-footed with no response.
4. Burning possessions like a triathlete burns calories
Even without watching the game, one can see that the Celtics committed way too many turnovers. I distinctly remember the 2022 Finals run having a magic number of seven, as if the Celtics kept their turnovers under that total they would win almost every time. 15 is not going to cut it.
But even worse was how those turnovers allowed the Lakers to start and continue runs. If the the turnovers were spaced perfectly apart throughout the 48 minutes, with roughly one every three minutes… well, it still wouldn’t have been good but at least they wouldn’t have committed three of them in the closing four minutes of second quarter, allowing the Lakers to open up their halftime lead.
The Celtics had certain moments last night where they treated possessions like books in Fahrenheit 451, ready to be roasted at any moment. My personal least-favorite, though, was this from Holiday:
I don’t have some deep reason why this was especially horrible except that it basically iced the Celtics’ chances at a comeback. But you cannot imagine my face when I saw that Holiday had nonchalantly stepped out of bounds in such a critical moment, so I needed to get that off my chest.
To give credit where credit is due, the Lakers had active hands all night, with everyone on the roster pitching in to create extra possessions and create fast break chances. But the Celtics were just as much lazily tossing the ball into crowded lanes, another painful example of their lack of giving-a-crap that showed all night.
5. Passable late game half-court offense
In the first of our two redeeming qualities of the night, I actually found the Celtics’ late game half-court sets to be not the worst thing ever.
In a playoff series, down 10 with Tatum and Jrue Holiday sitting on the bench to start the fourth quarter, this is what I want the Celtics to do in the half court. This possession could easily have been a low-probability Jaylen Brown isolation, something I decried in the Porzingis-less Clippers loss.
Instead, the Celtics hunted a size mismatch and got a good shot to stabilize things for at least the time being. I realized that the Celtics probably wouldn’t deserve to win the game by the second quarter, but it was definitely not over until the last two minutes. The Celtics rightly realized that—despite all the “hardship” they had endured, real and contrived—they had a chance to win even still.
If for nothing else, I appreciate the guys taking the end of the game seriously when the beginning was dotted with more calamities than one can count.
6. Feeling Yourself: The EP (ft. Austin Reaves)
Reaves was strapping outrageous threes all night, but he wasn’t just getting hot from deep. Check out this move:
Reaves surveys his options in transition, and then presumably sees Tatum take a single glance to his right to check if a screen was coming from that direction. That’s all the time Reaves needed to blow by Tatum like he was a traffic cone, finishing at the rim with two much taller defenders trailing.
It takes a certain level of confidence to stare down All-Star starter and two-time All-NBA First Teamer Jayson Tatum and say to yourself “I got this guy.” It takes even more confidence to do that when your name is Austin Reaves, and even more when you know you don’t have any star power to bail you out if it all goes poorly.
Reaves dominated the game all night, scoring 32 in the absence of his team captains, but his scoring was actually the second most impressive thing about the Lakers’ play. Let me introduce you to D’Angelo Russell: Seeing the Floor Edition.
7. Feeling Yourself 2: The Empire Strikes Back (starring D’Angelo Russell)
I am not a big fan of D’Angelo Russel. But sometimes game has to recognize game, and he was spectacular tonight, making an impact on defense and running the offense like he was a late 80s point guard. His 14 assists included some genuinely sick dimes, this one being the coolest:
Yes, that’s the same D’Angelo Russell who pulled up for three in transition with the game on the line against the Golden State Warriors recently. Yes, that’s the same guy who just had Atlanta Hawks fans chanting “we don’t want you” just two days before. And now apparently he’s Magic Johnson.
Russell is one of the least intense players in the league, often playing with an air of aloof arrogance that has made him a less-than-valuable member of several contending teams and is a big reason why he’s been on so many. Russell is as close to a born superstar as any player in the NBA, having been touted as one of the top players in the country at a young age.
When that didn’t pan out, I wonder if Russell ran out of motivation to care about winning. I haven’t seen much out of him recently to prove otherwise, but tonight showed what does motivate Russell: joy.
He played with a certain looseness and fun tonight that, while still lacking intensity, allowed him complete control over the court. Even his defensive stance and wry smiles after one of his teammates hit a wide open three screamed someone who was just having a great time.
8. Never give up, never surrender
Welcome to redeeming quality #2, in which the Celtics managed to fight back against a potential blowout inflection point in the third quarter.
I just want to warn everyone: this game is going to be blown up like a bouncy castle for media content. The Celtics are going to look like losers until at least Sunday night when they host the Grizzlies. It’s going to be okay.
But there’s an alternate universe where this loss looked a lot like the one to the Clippers, in which the Celtics were unable to score for half of the third quarter. The Clippers took the game completely out of reach before the Celtics could even blink. And as the Lakers went up 75-59, I fully expected that to happen.
The vibes were horrible, and I wanted to go home myself. I was sure the players did too, but they fought back.
This block by Horford into the Hauser three kicked off a mini-run that gave the Celtics their first real chance to take control of the game in a while. They eventually cut the deficit to six, but the Lakers slammed the door.
Still, I started to believe when the broadcast cut to Tatum clapping his hands and I heard “DEFENSE” echo from the rafters. And then that belief was shattered, but what can you do as a fan?
9. Watching NBA games in Korean
Though I was able to avoid spoilers about how the game went, I actually watched the full game late last night in Korean on NBA League Pass.
Why, you may ask? Well, due to complex black-out restrictions and… some rules about In-Home Wi-Fi with Xfinity cable TV, the only full replay of the game I could watch without having anything spoiled for me was the Korean-language broadcast on league pass. Don’t ask me why that wasn’t blacked out with the rest of the TNT feeds, but I’m not complaining.
And let me tell you, these Korean announcers are awesome. I don’t speak any Korean, nor did I understand a single word they were saying apart from piecing together some words and phrases that I have to imagine mean “shot” and “that didn’t work” from when they were used.
But these guys were just bringing it for 48 minutes. BOTH announcers would release an emphatic “OHHHHHH” when something cool happened, as if they had rehearsed the perfectly timed, perfectly in unison reaction to any impressive play. We really peaked when Austin Reaves stole an inbounds pass and the lead announcer hit a fiery “HA HA!”
Long story short, we need to normalize American announcers letting out random exclamations of joy, terror, bewilderment, or awe. These guys were balling all night.
10. No excuses
“Save for divine intervention, the Celtics will have no excuse for losing.”
I wrote that this afternoon when James and Davis were ruled out, signaling to the world that the Lakers had no serious intention of winning this basketball game. And we are sticking to that. Hopefully I’ve provided some insight, explanation, or perspective on the loss, but I damn well won’t offer any excuses for it.
Divine intervention won’t cut it either, as while the Lakers were making shots, it’s not like the Celtics faced an insurmountable statistical hurdle. This was simply an unacceptable performance against a team with no business even competing, let alone actually winning.
Both teams came in with something racking their brains. Brown found out 15 minutes before tip off that he was an All-Star again, and White and Porzingis found out that they weren’t. The Celtics spent five hours trying to hype themselves up for a game that looked on paper like the ‘96 Bulls versus a G-League Team.
But the Lakers could have had even better excuses, with every single player on the roster constantly looking over their shoulder as to if or when they would be traded or if their coach would be there on Saturday. Heck, Russell’s contract is constructed specifically to trade it, and even he was able to summon some joy to play with last night.
Whatever excuses the Celtics could muster, the Lakers would have had tenfold. Whatever caused the lethargy and carelessness should be deported to Switzerland, because that can never happen again. This team is too good to mess around with.