Celtics: Dennis Schröder, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Robert Williams, Al Horford
Lakers: Russell Westbrook, Talen Horton-Tucker, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard
Celtics: Jaylen Brown (out)
Lakers: Avery Bradley (probable); Trevor Ariza (out); Kendrick Nunn (out)
I resisted for as long I could. Actually, I didn’t.
It’s time to invoke the 2012-13 “tHiS iS gOiNg To Be FuN” squad.
Last time out, on the heels of an impressive win over the Kings – on the heels of a less impressive home win over the Pistons – I did everything except declare a fresh start to the season.
It wasn’t planned, but once I got into it, I knew damn well what was happening. Rather than pull out of that plunge into childlike optimism, I decided to roll the dice, on the chance that the Lakers’ first blowout win in more than seven months might spark some positive momentum, born of the realization among the members of this team that they are, in fact, an exceptional collection of talents, with a lifetime of experience in overwhelming and overpowering lesser opposition. All in time for a tight loss to a struggling Clipper team that seemed to have just enough at every turn.
There just doesn’t seem to be another gear. Rather, there is another gear, but the location of the gear shift itself is often a closely-guarded secret, and seldom the same from one day to the next.
Sure, of the five future Hall of Famers on this roster, not one is currently at his respective peak. But it doesn’t take five greats to put together a solid run of good play. Hell, there are teams in the NBA that don’t even employ three future Hall of Famers who’ve managed to strong together as many three straight strong performances this season. Or win more than, like, two games, anywhere on the schedule, comfortably.
If there’s a positive to be taken from the first third of this season, it’s that the vibes around this team are good bit better than those around the 2013 team. These Lakers are neither a joyless group, nor do they lack for affection for one another. If fact, this seems a group that wants nothing more than to have a great time. Unfortunately, their stretches of joy all seem to be nestled in broader disappointment. And there’s really nothing in these maddening performances to suggest that things are about to markedly improve.
Welcome, for one last time to Staples, the eternal rivals, the Boston Celtics. Like the Clippers before them, the Celtics encounter the Lakers while in the midst of a nine-games-in-20-days stretch, in which their only consecutive games in the same building will take place tonight, and tomorrow, at 11th and Fig.
The teams last met November 19 in Boston, with the Lakers sitting at .500, and the Celtics a game below. The first quarter of that game, like so many an odd quarter here and there, was an intoxicating example of what this Laker team might be. Even in the absence of consistent or effective execution on defense, the Lakers offense was captivating, with Anthony Davis in complete command, LeBron James every bit as masterful, if a bit more subdued, Carmelo Anthony and Malik Monk providing an additional spark, and Russ providing energy and, along with Rajon rondo, facilitating.
Of course, after that awesome twelve minutes, the Lakers proceeded to abandon all intensity and spent the remainder of the evening getting their doors blown off, but, hey, at least it was proof of concept… right??
In the almost three weeks since, the C’s have won five of eight, and now sit at 13-11 – only good enough for eighth in the Eastern Conference, but better off than before. The barely-above-water record masks the fact that the Celtics rank in the NBA’s top half in offensive efficiency (13th), defensive efficiency (10th), Net Rating (9th), SRS (10th; SRS is a Basketball Reference stat meant to indicate above/below average performance based on average point differential and strength of schedule) and Pythagorean wins (also 10th, with an “expected” 14-11 record).
The Lakers, meanwhile, have treaded water, beating the Pacers, the Kings and the Pistons twice, while falling to the Knicks, Kings and Clippers. Despite a near-identical record to that of the Celtics, the Lakers rank in the league’s top half only (and only barely) in defensive efficiency (15th), and in the bottom third in offense (23rd), Net Rating (22nd), SRS (25th), and Pythagorean wins (22nd), with an expected 11-13 record.
Typically, I’d harp on how, on top of all of that, the friendliest portion of the schedule is long gone, but then I’d have to mention the combined 1-3 mark against the Thunder and the Kings.
No, instead, I’ll do the thing that surely is not going to get old as this season wears on: scream from the mountaintops (or at least a sixth-floor window), that the Lakers’ great players simply must need to be great, for something resembling a sustained stretch.
Anthony Davis is, as he always is, excellent. Unfortunately, he is also in an unending tug-o-war with a variety of nagging injuries. There is precious little to be done about that latter part, but when he is on the floor, he’s got to constantly keep front and center in his mind exactly who he is, and set about brutalizing whoever is tasked with trying to check him. The team that he worked like a speed bag for twelve minutes eighteen days ago (on what is effectively an almost-month-long road trip) would be a decent place to start.
Otherwise, LeBron, who’s no longer a consistent stopper on defense, must at least contribute more of an effort on that end. And Russ needs to maintain his energy and pick his spots, while limiting error. See? Easy!
Just like getting into shape is easy, right? Eat better and work out regularly. DUH.
In all seriousness, this team’s road to writing the ship should be a fairly straightforward one. And yet, opportunity after opportunity comes and goes, and we find ourselves basically where we started.
As the NBA is stubbornly insistent on playing out the remainder of this season regardless of the Lakers’ travails, we’d might as well make some effort to steer clear of the dark place and declare that all hopes of contention are dead. At some point, though, it would be nice to see more than a half of play that suggests we’re not all insane.
Where you can watch: 7:00 pm start time on TNT.