Celtics vs. Lakers: Taking the Good with the Bad

The Celtics lost a nail-biter to the Los Angeles Lakers yesterday afternoon, ending their brief two-game win streak. While players and fans walked away from the game with a bitter taste in their mouths, there are both positives and negatives to take away from one of Boston’s biggest games of the season.

Good – Jayson Tatum is a Bona Fide Superstar

What else is there to say about Jayson Tatum that hasn’t been echoed across every major sporting news platform since Boston’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers on February 13th? Out of four games against the two Los Angeles teams, Tatum has been the best player on the floor in every contest – a ridiculous feat when looking at the sheer amount of talent boasted by the Lakers and Clippers. Going head-to-head with LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, he rose to the challenge and dominated while he was on the court, scoring 41 points on 60% shooting from the field and 57% from behind the three-point line. Tatum has been on another level since December of this season, and his play has vaulted him into the MVP conversation. His 15 free throw attempts were a season high, and several of his field goals came in isolation situations against potential Defensive Player of the Year Anthony Davis. Tatum is finally getting the national recognition he deserves, and the Celtics are as dangerous as any other team in the league when he’s dialed in. 

Bad – The Bench

The five players who saw minutes off the bench for Boston yesterday (Brad WanamakerRomeo LangfordGrant WilliamsSemi Ojeleye, and Enes Kanter) scored 11 total points while committing 9 total fouls. More simply put, the bench play was an absolute mess, which has to improve if the Celtics want to compete with some of the league’s deeper teams. With Kemba Walker out, the team had to rely on Wanamaker as a primary ball-handler, who missed all four of his field goal attempts and turned the ball over three times in 18 minutes. Williams, tasked with defending Anthony Davis and Los Angeles’ other big men, picked up five personal fouls in 13 minutes. Langford, who ended up guarding LeBron James on several possessions, held his own and converted on one of his two three-point attempts, but ultimately didn’t make enough of an impact to give the starters much of a rest. Ojeleye had a quiet game, while Kanter only lasted five minutes before Brad Stevens realized he was completely hopeless on the defensive end of the floor.

The Celtics didn’t have their sixth-man, Marcus Smart, coming off the bench due to the fact that he started the game, so the absurdly poor bench play can be excused a bit. Boston needs at least seven players for their postseason rotation though, and if the team can’t rely on Kanter or Williams for consistent minutes due to their defensive struggles, the Celtics may find themselves in a tough spot once the playoffs roll around.

Good – Another Great Game from Daniel Theis

Daniel Theis has been Boston’s unsung hero throughout the 2019-20 season, and his consistent play continued yesterday. Recording 16 points and 9 rebounds in 31 minutes, Theis held his ground against Anthony Davis and the Lakers’ massive frontcourt before fouling out in the final minute of the game. Though Davis had amassed 32 points by the time the final buzzer sounded, the superstar power forward shot just 40% from the field and often struggled against the length and elite defensive positioning deployed by Theis.

Theis’ ability to space the floor is so significant for Boston’s offense, and his 2-2 shooting from behind the three-point line drew rim-protectors out to the perimeter and opened up the court for Boston’s wing players to attack the basket. His touch around the basket and on mid-range jump shots showed as well, as he converted on six of his seven field goal attempts. In addition, little things like setting great screens and sealing off defenders to give his teammates easy layups don’t show up in the box score, but go a long way in regards to forcing opponents to respect Boston’s offense, and his interior presence is incredibly underrated. Theis is a key cog in Boston’s system this season, and his play moving forward will help dictate how far the Celtics can go in the postseason.

Bad – Late-Game Execution

After Jaylen Brown made a three-point shot to put Boston ahead 110-108 with 1:17 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Celtics looked to be in complete control going into the final minute of the game. After a missed layup by Anthony Davis with 0:59 left on the game clock, the team looked poised to escape with a narrow victory. Gordon Hayward, nabbing the rebound, subsequently forced his way to the basket at the other end of the floor and threw up a contested layup that fell off the rim and gave Los Angeles another chance to tie the game or take the lead.

Hayward’s layup attempt was likely Boston’s most significant mistake over the course of the entire afternoon. In situations where the team is up by two points with 57 seconds remaining in the game, swarming the basket and trying to convert on a tough layup is an absolutely terrible decision, even if a given player has a match-up advantage. Had Hayward dribbled the ball out to the perimeter and ran 15 additional seconds off of the shot clock, Boston would have had an additional chance to score even if Los Angeles had tied the game or taken the lead. Instead, Boston found themselves having to defend LeBron James and the Lakers in a one-and-one situation, where Los Angeles could attempt and field goal and get the ball back no matter what happened.

The final minute didn’t play out smoothly due to a ridiculous amount of referee intervention and foul calls, but the Lakers found themselves in a great position following Hayward’s miss, which they ultimately capitalized on. Boston has to learn from the end of this game and focus a bit more on clock management, as true title contenders know how to play both the clock and the referees to their advantage.

Good – The Best Loss Boston Could Have Asked For

Not all losses are created equal, and a two-point road loss against the best team in the Western Conference without the team’s All-Star point guard is as good of a result as Boston could have realistically hoped for. There was a legitimate chance that this game ended in a Lakers blowout victory with how well Los Angeles has played all year, and instead of folding over, the Celtics competed until the very end and pushed one of the NBA’s best teams to their limits. With the relative lack of depth apparent on the Celtics’ roster, being without an All-Star starter is a huge deal, and the fact that Boston was able to walk into the Staples Center and go toe-to-toe with a team that many consider to be the best in the league speaks to the amount of talent at their disposal.

A win over the Lakers in Los Angeles would have placed near the top of Boston’s 2019-20 resume, but it wasn’t absolutely imperative. The Celtics have the best collection of perimeter scoring in the NBA – a two-point loss without their starting point guard is more of a positive than a negative. After this game, it’s officially time to own the idea that the Boston Celtics are title contenders this season, whether the NBA community at large wants to admit it or not. 

References
Statistics obtained via NBA.com
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo

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