Thursday's matchup of the NBA's most famous rivals wasn't quite as star-studded as usual. With LeBron James and Anthony Davis out, this matchup lacked the flair of a usual Lakers vs. Celtics battle. But with fans back at Staples Center for the first time this season and both teams fighting for playoff positioning, there was still plenty to play for in Los Angeles.
Ultimately, it was the Celtics that walked away with the 121-113 victory over the Lakers to avoid a season sweep. The victory pushed them to 30-26 on the season and back into a tie with the Atlanta Hawks for the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. The 34-22 Lakers are stuck at No. 5 in the West and trying to stave off of the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks to avoid being forced into the play-in round. This loss won't help them on that front, as their lead over No. 7 Dallas is now down to only three games. That failed comeback is where we kick off the most important takeaways of the game.
So close, yet so far
With 7:01 remaining in this game, the Celtics led by 27. At this point, the outcome was hardly in question. The real question was whether Boston would turn this into a historic blowout over the Lakers. After all, the biggest Celtics victory in Los Angeles was by 26 points in 1995. That margin was in play. The Lakers kept it close early, but by the middle of the fourth quarter, the rout was on.
And then it wasn't. The Lakers went on a 10-0 run from there. Boston scored once. And then Los Angeles scored the next 14. With 1:18 remaining, the Lakers had the Boston lead down to five. This wouldn't quite have been the biggest comeback in NBA history, as the Milwaukee Bucks once came back to overcome a 29-point fourth-quarter deficit, but the Lakers almost did this in only seven minutes, and they would have done so without their two best players. It might not have been the most important loss in Celtics history, but given the context, it certainly would have been the most embarrassing.
The elephant in the room here is that this comeback large came against Boston's bench. At that 1:18 mark, Brad Stevens stopped messing around and put his starters back into the game. Jaylen Brown delivered the daggers and the Celtics won, but as moral victories go, this was a pretty good one for the Lakers. It encapsulates all they've been through over the past month or so. They've kept their heads above water no matter who gets hurt, and in this one, they fought until the bitter end despite overwhelming odds. It's the identity of the defending champions, and it will serve them well in the postseason.
Won't give up without a fight
Give Marc Gasol credit. No matter how hard the Lakers try to bench him, he just keeps thriving in the minutes he gets. Consider these numbers:
Minutes per game
Points per Game
Rebounds per game
Assists per game
Field goal percentage
Before Andre Drummond signing
Games Andre Drummond has played
Games Andre Drummond has missed
Gasol has been open about his frustration with the situation. He is a Hall of Famer. He left money on the table to join the Lakers. Their starting lineup featuring him and both Laker stars was roasting opponents by almost 14 points per 100 possessions before Davis went down. Despite all of that, the front office went out of its way to try to replace him.
And Gasol is doing everything in his power to change their minds. Drummond's addition has lit a fire underneath him, and the result is his best basketball of the season. Does that mean he's going to have a place in the rotation when it's all said and done? It's hard to say. The Lakers will devote plenty of playoff center minutes to Davis and Montrezl Harrell is also in the mix, but it's hard to ignore what Gasol's presence does for a half-court offense sorely in need of shooting and passing. He may not be the player Drummond is, but he's a better fit, and if he keeps producing like this, that might just shine through.
The next generation of Lakers vs. Celtics
Every iteration of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry comes with its own unique flair. Jerry West vs. Bill Russell was a contrast in size and style. Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird was a contrast in personality. Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett were acquired in the same season, and Paul Pierce, a Los Angeles native, battled his home city's favorite son in Kobe Bryant. Each generation brings something new to the table.
We might have missed our best chance at a Finals matchup between this generation of the Lakers and Celtics when Boston fell two games short last season. The LeBron era may end without the two ever facing off on the biggest stage, and the truth is that when the Lakers and Celtics do meet again in the Finals, it will probably involve several big names we haven't even considered yet.
But if we do get a Finals matchup between these two teams in something resembling their current forms, Thursday was a bit of a preview of what this upcoming generation has to offer the rivalry. Jaylen Brown, still only 24, was the game's biggest star. He dropped 40 points on a staggering 17-of-20 shooting. The leading Lakers scorer was Talen Horton-Tucker, still only 20 and proving his place in the league. He's not close to Brown yet, but finishes like this suggest that he's ascending in that direction.
You don't think of Brown or Horton-Tucker when you think Lakers-Celtics, but if Thursday is any indication, the rivalry is in good hands.