BOSTON — For the first time since Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce still toiled for the franchises that have since retired their numbers, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics are both contenders to win their respective conferences. Monday was supposed to be the start of a new chapter in a rivalry that has yielded nearly half of all NBA championships, spanning Russell and Wilt, Bird and Magic.
Except, Los Angeles opted out in a 139-107 loss that marked its worst defeat in Boston since the deciding Game 6 of the 2008 Finals. It was nothing short of strange to see LeBron James on a Lakers team with Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley — the starting backcourt for a Celtics team that fought many a battle with his Miami Heat — getting blown out by Kemba Walker’s Celtics.
“They basically did whatever they wanted the whole night,” conceded fresh face of the Lakers franchise Anthony Davis, playing in the rivalry for the first time, fresh off a backside injury that limited his minutes for a game in which he also got into early foul trouble. “We didn’t respond.”
That Enes Kanter doubled Davis up in both points and rebounds is all you really need to know.
“Listen, it was a good old-fashioned butt-whooping,” said James, who all but stopped playing defense once Boston’s lead ballooned to more than 20 points before reaching 30. “That’s all.”
When James did challenge a shot, Celtics wing Jaylen Brown threw down a dunk over the four-time MVP that made James look like a 35-year-old for the first time all season. Afterward, Brown and Jayson Tatum smiled through responses to questions about whose dunk over James was better (both agreed it was Tatum’s in the 2018 Eastern Conference finals). James gave Brown his due in the media, and Brown referenced LeBron as The GOAT on Instagram.
Same goes for Walker, who showered LeBron with praise as “one of the greatest players of all time” after earning his first win in 29 games against him. There was no animus to be found here.
James was more interested in discussing the controversy at his son’s game earlier in the day in Springfield, Massachusetts, where a young fan was ejected for throwing something in Bronny’s direction. The Lakers star called the fan’s actions “disrespectful,” saying he was “mad as s---” when he watched a video replay of the incident. Informed that the fan may have been 9 or 10 years old, James suggested his younger son would have roughed up the kid had he been in attendance.
Asked if he was concerned that his trip to Springfield may have disrupted his pregame routine, James said, “Yeah, but I would break every routine in my life for my family. If the gods are with me, they’ll make sure I get back safe. My routine was broke today, but I could care less about it if I’m seeing my family. … It was a unique opportunity for me to see my son play live that close to where I’m at, so I could care less about this right here. It’s all secondary to my family.”
That is the proper perspective. It also sheds new light on what once seemed so consequential. Never has a Celtics-Lakers game between a pair of top-10 teams felt less like a rivalry. It was just another January game when the road team had little interest in playing beyond the first two minutes. The lack of juice on this cold night in Boston was another reminder why the NBA is considering a midseason tournament and sweeping schedule changes to rattle the monotony.
Someone asked James if he noticed any difference this season for an NBA with the Splash Brothers sidelined in Golden State and Kevin Durant rehabbing in Brooklyn. His response: “If you’re asking me a question about how the league feels, I think that’s unfair for me to answer.”
You can answer that question on your own: The league feels less acrimonious. Count on one hand the number of rivalries that can generate excitement merely by being scheduled. Player movement made most personality-driven, and Russell Westbrook accounts for half of them.
JaVale McGee is taking Jaylen Brown’s game jersey with him. Said he thinks Brown is going to be a staple in Boston and wanted to get the jersey early on.
— James Toscano (@Jimmy_Toscano) January 21, 2020
The added factor of James in L.A. could not even breathe life into Monday night’s affair. If James and the first-place Lakers cannot get up for a midseason game against a Celtics team they could potentially meet in the Finals, then what hope do the Pelicans and Grizzlies have?
The Celtics once served as a bellwether for LeBron’s legacy. Twice they beat his Cavaliers, forcing his exit to Miami, where he drove a stake through the heart of Boston’s Kevin Garnett era. Rondo was there, and things may have been different had Bradley been healthy then.
When the Celtics got around to being good again, with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown at the helm, James was back in Cleveland, his stature secure, and he handed them a Game 7 defeat that clinched his eighth straight Finals appearance. When he joined the Lakers, the league was set to rekindle the rivalry that lifted its popularity in lean periods pre-Jordan and pre-LeBron, with former teammate turned foe Irving on the opposite end of it. The NBA can change awfully fast.
Now, Bradley says he does not follow Boston any closer than he does the other 28 teams.
“I guess it’s kind of cool,” he added when pressed again. “We didn’t think much of it, obviously.”
Does he have a greater appreciation for James having been on both sides? “No,” said Rondo.
And is there anything Rondo has learned about James as a teammate that he did not know as an opponent? “No,” again. The only rivalry Rondo seemed interested in was his with reporters, who he comically kept waiting long after everyone else had spoke as a throwback to his heyday.
Rondo may not have been willing to contribute to any narrative about how weird it is to see the point guard who helped the Celtics destroy the Lakers en route to the 2008 title (and nearly did so again two years later) wearing purple and gold alongside James — Boston’s chief rival in four playoff battles over a five-year stretch. But he did diagnose a more curious development.
“Effort” was L.A.’s biggest priority at halftime, Rondo said, and yet a 14-point deficit doubled after the break. “I can only speak for myself,” he added. “Usually I’m ready to go, and when we do get punched in the mouth early, we always respond, but tonight they just kept punching.”
Here’s hoping the Lakers decide to fight back when they play host to the Celtics in February.
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