Three thoughts on the overtime thriller between the Lakers and Celtics, which saw Boston give up a massive lead only to make an improbable comeback of their own for a 122–118 win …
1. The Celtics Still Have Another Level to Get To
It could be tempting to look at the totality of Boston’s West Coast road trip and say the Celts have come back down to earth after seemingly running away from the rest of the league. Boston lost two games—to the Clippers and Warriors—and came very close to losing a third to an offensively challenged Lakers team after going into a massive offensive slump in the second half. But there’s important context to Boston’s last five games: The absence of Al Horford.
Though the team has played admirably during Blake Griffin’s starts and minutes overall, Griffin is no Horford at this stage of his career. Boston’s frontcourt depth was seriously affected without both Horford and Rob Williams III. The Celtics effectively played their last five games with one hand tied behind their backs and still had plenty of positive moments. Obviously every team deals with injuries, and health is not guaranteed in the postseason. Ultimately, before anybody rushes to ask questions about Boston after the team looked seriously fallible for the first time all season, don’t underestimate the importance of Horford to this team’s championship prospects. And if Williams is the same player he was last season before his knee troubles, watch out.
2. The Lakers Need to Unlock the Right Rotation
The Lakers are making steps in the right direction. No, the team is not a contender. They also look nowhere near as hopeless as they did to start the season. Westbrook has been good in his role off the bench, and LeBron and AD are still capable of playing like top-10 guys every night. Finding the right combinations is still a challenge for Darvin Ham, however.
Due in part to injuries and in part to tinkering, Los Angeles’s most-played lineup has logged only 51 minutes so far this season, barely more than four full quarters. The James, Davis, Lonnie Walker IV, Patrick Beverley, Dennis Schröder fivesome has been outscored by three points in that time, which is not exactly exciting.
Los Angeles ran out of gas against Boston, as Ham rode Russ, James, Davis and Austin Reaves for most of their big run in the second half. (James is not going to enjoy watching the film of him not closing out on three-point shooters late in the fourth and OT.) A key for the Lakers moving forward will be avoiding those big deficits so James and AD aren’t fighting uphill. There’s a good case for Reaves to be starting, and maybe even Troy Brown Jr. as well. The Lakers give up so much size playing the Schröder-Bev backcourt, and Beverley’s defense can’t make up for his vanishing offense so far this season. (Add Walker to that group, and the Lakers are in a tough position to guard wings like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.)
There is a way to unlock this Lakers group, particularly with James and Davis playing as well as they have, to be greater than the sum of its parts. Ham is close. The players who were responsible for the second-half comeback should be instructive in who deserves even more run moving forward.
3. Jayson Tatum is MVP Caliber
After two subpar games against the Warriors and Clippers, Tatum responded against L.A. with 44 points on 15-of-29 shooting, with nine boards and six assists for good measure. Tatum is now averaging a 30/8/4 on the season, shooting 47% from the field and 36.2% on 9.3 threes a night. He is a one-man offensive force. And his game-tying shot over James to send the game into overtime is an indicator of how difficult he is to guard one-on-one.
Tatum has a case to be the most complete offensive player in the league right now considering the variety of ways he can puncture a defense. His outside shot is deadly. He can finish against anyone at the rim. He can go get a contested bucket in big moments. I know MVP discourse can get poisoned very quickly, and if often starts way too early. Whenever people are ready to have the conversation, Tatum’s name has to be near or at the top of every list.