Lakers tap into green energy as their Big Three power a win over the Celtics

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LOS ANGELES, CA - December 07 2021: Boston Celtics forward Grant Williams.
Boston Celtics forward Grant Williams guards Lakers forward LeBron James in first half at Staples Center on Tuesday. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

These franchises, maybe more than any other two in the NBA, take the court with the ghosts of the pasts surrounding their iconic colors.

It’s why veteran public-address announcer Lawrence Tanter stretched out the last syllable of “seventeen” when talking about the championship banners the Lakers were playing under Tuesday night at Staples Center.

That is, after all, the same number of titles won by the hated Boston Celtics — their green uniforms beautifully clashing against the Lakers’ purple and gold.

But since the Lakers assembled their roster full of yesterday’s biggest stars in an attempt to win tomorrow’s championship, the balance between who they were and what they need to be has been impossible to strike.

Like everything, getting LeBron James back to doing as much as what he’s used to will be the key. And having this version of Russell Westbrook?

That was always the hope.

“I just like the way we competed tonight on both sides of the floor. A lot of intensity,” James said, calling the 117-102 win maybe the Lakers’ best performance of the season.

The Lakers got the best versions of James and Westbrook, the veteran Lakers slicing through the Boston defense and bulldozing the Celtics if someone tried to stand his ground.

James set the tone early, keeping the Lakers from falling behind by a lot, and Westbrook dominated the third quarter, slamming home dunks, dancing after threes and dishing out assists.

James finished with 30 points, five assists, four rebounds and plenty of defensive energy and attention, the kind of game that made him seem like he was still at his peak instead of starting to fall from it. Westbrook had 24 points and 11 assists, helping the Lakers lead by as many as 20.

“The energy he plays with is always good for your group,” coach Frank Vogel said.

Even a bad start from Anthony Davis, in which the Lakers’ third star spent more time on the wrong end of Robert Williams III highlights than posting his own, turned in the second half. Davis finished with 17 points and 16 rebounds, and the Lakers outrebounded the Celtics 51-34.

It started offensively for the Lakers as James matched Jayson Tatum (34 points) shot for shot early, showing that he still could get to that place where it didn’t matter who stood between him and the basket. Tatum’s 14 quick points were outdone by 16 from James.

It was much needed for the Lakers, a team that traded its best and most consistent defensive players for more firepower. Still, scoring has been a challenge, the Lakers struggling to find the right spacing and right lineups to play with James, Davis and Westbrook.

Lakers forward Anthony Davis grabs a rebound from Boston Celtics guard Romeo Langford.
Lakers forward Anthony Davis grabs a rebound from Boston Celtics guard Romeo Langford in first half at Staples Center on Tuesday. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Defensively, things still have been a struggle, the Lakers reinserting Avery Bradley into the starting lineup for defense and the Celtics quickly scoring 20 points in the first seven minutes.

It was Tatum doing the damage, forced into an even bigger role with the Celtics’ No. 2 scorer, Jaylen Brown, still out nursing a hamstring injury. Like James, Tatum cooked whichever defender tried to stop him, too tall and too smooth for Bradley, Westbrook or Talen Horton-Tucker.

Needing him more off the ball than on it, the Lakers started the game hiding James on Al Horford and letting him be a key part of rotation. After the slow start, the Lakers’ defensive energy picked up, James squatting low to guard former teammate Dennis Schroder before forcing an offensive foul and getting the turnover.

With the ball headed the other way, James celebrated the stop, pointing toward the offensive end as he slowly walked down the floor into the next possession.

It’s a scene that’s not been too frequent, James keying a defensive stop. And it’s been not too frequent for a few reasons. One, James was playing in just his 13th game this season. And two, the defenders he’s starred around are mostly in different uniforms.

The results have been some ugly numbers for James. With him on the court, the Lakers’ defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) entering the game was a team-worst 112.3. Among all NBA players averaging more than 30 minutes, only nine were worse.

While defensive rating is mostly a team stat, James was second behind Alex Caruso last season among Lakers regulars, with a 103.2 rating. It was his impact on that side of the floor, as much as anything, that fueled early MVP talk before his season was derailed by an ankle injury.

Two years ago, when the Lakers won the NBA title, James also was among the Lakers’ best-rated defenders.

Vogel largely dismissed those early numbers before the game.

“He’s giving his all. He’s been in and out of lineups. Like our team, had some strong nights and some nights where it wasn’t there,” Vogel said. “But he’s been great for us.”

Tuesday, James really was — playing with a pace, energy and spirit that the Lakers have captured in their championship past and are chasing to add title No. 18 to their future.

To be their best, the Lakers have to look like the players they once were, and in a dominant win over the Celtics, they showed they were capable of it.

“We have a strong belief as to what this group can accomplish,” Vogel said. “… We’re seeing growth each game.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.