BOSTON — Soon after the conclusion of tonight’s contest, Celtics’ cynics — of which there are many in a city as tough to please as Boston — must have been confused about the state of their team. Were the C’s as flawed as they showed just 48 hours ago against the perennial cellar dweller or ready for the challenge of the championship chase, which is what they sure looked like in dismantling LeBron James and the best team in the West?
Brad Stevens is still looking for that answer, too, and a long-awaited return to full health, starting tonight, will give him the chance to answer every cynic and critic of the Celtics this season.
Both Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown came back from injuries tonight in time for the biggest game — and most-lopsided win — of the season, a 139-107 beatdown of the Los Angeles Lakers, the team with the best record in the NBA. In the latest renewal of the intersectional rivalry that has captured the imagination of NBA fans for generations, what was projected to be another down-to-the-wire classic quickly turned into the second coming of the “Memorial Day Massacre” at old Boston Garden during the 1985 NBA Finals.
Of course, almost no one saw this type of result coming, especially after the Celtics, without Brown and Walker, dropped a home game to the Phoenix Suns on Friday that marked Boston’s sixth loss out of eight overall.
“I thought we bounced back pretty well, especially playing the top team in the West,” said Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, who led the team with 27 points. “We lost three in a row, so we were just looking to come out, obviously get a win, and just play with more intensity and more energy throughout the game.”
Playing with more intensity when a team can actually field its full complement of players, with injuries massively contributing to the Celtics’ stumbles; Walker, Brown, Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart have all missed multiple games due to injury or illness over the past month, upsetting the balance of rotations and chemistry that led the Celtics to winning 22 of their first 29 games.
All are back and relatively healthy, and it showed tonight against the Lakers as the Celtics scored at least 33 points in every quarter against the Lakers, quickly overcoming an 8-0 deficit to start the game and assuaging any nerves that might have creeped inside of TD Garden about their rut continuing.
“We were fortunate to put the ball in the basket quite a bit, but we really competed on both ends,” Stevens said. “That was good. It’s good to be as close to full as we’ve been, from a health standpoint. I’m hoping that we can maintain that and build off of it.”
Before seeing the end product on the court tonight, Stevens and the team had a film session on Sunday, one that Stevens said was a a “great film session” that allowed his team to see the factors on the court that they can control and be better at than they had been in the past few games.
“I think for us, it was probably our ball pressure,” Walker said about what his team got out the most of yesterday’s film session. “Where we allow teams to operate their offense, when we’re good and when we’re bad. When we’re really good, we’re up on the basketball and teams are operating from pretty far out. When we’re bad, obviously, it’s the opposite. Tonight we really did that.
“We were just scrambling, helping each other, talking, running all over the gym and making a lot of hustle plays,” Walker continued. “Just playing the way we know we’re capable of playing.”
Boston forced 15 Laker turnovers and, even more impressive, scored 28 points off of those turnovers.
Their conversion rate after turning Los Angeles over mitigated the return of All-Star forward Anthony Davis to the Lakers lineup, as he had missed the last five games due to a glute bruise. On a minutes restriction, Davis scored just nine points in 22 minutes. Even with Davis limited, almost nothing could have saved Los Angeles tonight from suffering its worst loss of what otherwise is a stellar season.
“Listen, it was a good old-fashioned butt-whooping, that’s all,” said James, who had 15 points, 13 assists and seven rebounds. “They beat us on all facets of the game from outside, the interior, points from offensive rebounds was the main ingredients of this L.”
All facets of the game were clocking for the Celtics when, once again, they had all their healthy bodies available. Is tonight’s impressive showing portend a great stretch of basketball in the near future? For Stevens, it’s a matter of time — and health — until we can find the answer.
We’ve had guys out, and I want to see if we can play well with this sustained period with more bodies available and then we’ll gauge where we are and how good we are and all that stuff.”