OT Thriller is Latest Evidence That C's are Neck-and-Neck with NBA's Best

LOS ANGELES – If a healthy LA Clippers team is the odds-on favorite to win the NBA title this season, the Boston Celtics ought to be right by their side.

The two teams – one healthy, and one not – went toe-to-toe Wednesday night inside the STAPLES Center amid a thrilling overtime game on national television. LA, which was fully loaded for the first time this season with both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, came out on top with a 107-104 win. But the Celtics, who were missing star forward Gordon Hayward, proved to LA and to the rest of the nation what they have felt all along.

“We believe, truly, we can compete with anybody in this league,” said Marcus Smart.

All of the available evidence fully supports such a belief. Let’s start with Wednesday, which stands as some of the most convincing evidence of all.

Boston competed with the mighty Clippers from start to finish, despite playing without Hayward, and despite opening the game by missing its first 16 attempts from 3-point range. The Celtics did what great teams do: they grinded through their struggles and found a way to hang around.

In fact, they did more than just hang around; they led for the majority of the night and built a 10-point advantage midway through the fourth quarter. The Clippers then surged back to make it a game, and from there, this knock-down, drag-out war went down to the wire.

Just as it should have in a matchup between two powerhouse teams.

The Celtics had an answer for every play the Clippers made. It didn’t matter if the star-studded duo of Leonard and George made a superstar play, or if Lou Williams or Patrick Beverley contributed swing plays. Boston, led by Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart, was always there with a rebuttal.

Tatum was the player who sent the game to overtime. He canned a 3-pointer from the right wing with 13.1 seconds left after dropping George, an All-Defensive First Team performer last season, with a vicious crossover-step back move. It was a signal to George that he may be the more established player, but that doesn’t mean he’s the more dominant player.

Tatum went on to score six more points during overtime, taking his total to a game-high 30 on the night, but it was Smart who made play after play during the extra session to keep his team in the running for a win. Smart assisted on all three of Tatum’s overtime baskets and made an incredible defensive play on Leonard that give the Celtics possession of the ball with 18.5 seconds left with a chance to tie the game.

In the end, Boston wasn’t able to tie the game up or regain a lead, but that doesn’t diminish the level at which the team played throughout this game. This was a high-level game, played between two high-level teams, that felt like what would be watched in an NBA Finals game. The Celtics savored the moment and played at the level they expect from themselves in such a situation. They just came up a couple plays short.

“This is the opportunity you look for, especially bright lights, big stage,” said Tatum, who was discussing matching up specifically with Leonard and George, each of whom he outperformed. “You don’t want to back down. You want to compete and show them you belong and just earn their respect.”

There is no doubt that Tatum and the Celtics earned the respect of their counterparts Wednesday night. The Clippers know full-well that when they come to Boston Feb. 13 for their second and final matchup of the regular season with the Celtics, they’ll be in for a dog fight.

It must also be noted that LA isn’t the first high-level opponent to learn such a lesson this season. Boston has many such notches on its belt.

The Celtics have already downed the defending-champion and currently 10-4 Toronto Raptors. They have beaten the reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and his currently 11-3 Milwaukee Bucks. They have upended one of this season’s leading MVP candidates, Luka Doncic, and his currently 9-5 Dallas Mavericks. They have stood toe-to-toe with currently 9-5 Philadelphia for three-plus quarters.

The lesson here is that Boston is no joke. The resume, aided by Wednesday’s thriller in LA, speaks for itself.

If the Clippers, who at full health barely snuck past an injured Boston team on their home court, are the title favorites, what does that make the Celtics?

It makes them legitimate title contenders, too.

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