BOSTON – The Lakers arrived in the familiar purple and gold. The Celtics wore white to match the 17 green-trimmed banners overhead. But things were not as they used to be.
The fans were more intense than for the average regular-season game, though never to the old standards. There were boos for D’Angelo Russell and cheers for Isaiah Thomas, but it wasn’t the same as when Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce were being introduced not so long ago.
The NBA’s greatest rivalry found itself to be in-between eras on Friday. The focus was on the future instead of the past.
“It felt like just basketball to me,” said rookie guard Jaylen Brown after he had contributed 12 points and seven rebounds to the Celtics’ 113-107 win over the Lakers. “You could definitely feel the tension in the air. The fans were kind of antsy and a little bit more riled up – you could definitely feel that. But at the same time, basketball is basketball.”
It was a good night for the Celtics, who are closer to returning to championship contention than the Lakers. Boston expanded its lead to 2.5 games over Washington and Toronto for the No. 2 seed in the East. Brad Stevens and his staff earned the right to coach the East in the All-Star Game Feb. 19 in New Orleans. And the Celtics nosed ahead of the Lakers as the NBA’s all-time winningest franchise: They had been tied with 3,252 victories entering this game.
“It’s a little silly,” said Luke Walton, who was making his L.A.-Boston debut as coach of the Lakers. “It’s one game, and then if they lose the next game and we win, are we going to have the same talk again?”
And yet Walton and Stevens agreed that the trivial circumstances of their first meeting was extraordinary.
“It’s a unique enough rivalry,” Stevens said. “One hundred years from now it will probably be tied again.”
In the absence of Bryant – who said farewell to Boston last year by leading the Lakers to an upset victory here – the biggest star of this new rebuilding era was 5-9 Thomas, who scored 17 of his 38 points in the fourth quarter. Thomas is the only player from either team to make the upcoming All-Star Game. In Boston’s final possession of the second quarter, a roar rose up all around as he dribbled nonchalantly between his legs. Then Al Horford arrived to set a pick and Thomas burst through the rib cage of the Lakers defense for a 62-51 Boston lead entering the half. The Celtics were able to hold off their guests the rest of the way, with most of the big shots coming from Thomas.
“You can’t put my name with Kobe,” said Thomas, shaking his head. “Eighteen years from now, hopefully. But I’m not close to him.”
Thomas, who was the No. 60 pick of the Sacramento Kings in 2011, has been on a Roy Hobbs run of late. He leads the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring (10.7), his 29.9 ppg overall equals the franchise record of Larry Bird, and with one more basket he would have become the first Celtic to score 40 points in three straight games.
“I didn’t know about it, or I would have shot the last shot,” he said, joking. But not really.
The league’s two leading franchises are in different stages of redevelopment. As foretold years ago by team president Danny Ainge, Boston was willing to move Hall-of-Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn in a trade for as many as three high-lottery picks that may yet return the Celtics to championship contention just as LeBron James is sliding out of his prime.
While the Celtics are hoping to reach the conference finals while also cashing in on what may be the No. 1 pick overall by way of the Nets this spring, the principle of trading Bryant in order to hasten their restoration was never an option for the Lakers. And so L.A. is rebuilding around its playmaking combination of Russell, the second-year point guard who had an impressive line of 20 points, six assists and just two turnovers, and skinny 6-9 rookie Brandon Ingram (14 points and six rebounds), who showed tremendous flair whether he was spotting up in the corner or finishing with a terrific ball fake in transition.
“I don’t think they get it,” said Walton of his young players’ understanding of their six-decade feud with Boston. “They will – the older they get, being around the league for years to come – but right now I’d be surprised if they really understand what the history of this rivalry is.”
Since a 10-10 start, the Lakers have gone 7-25 over the last two months. It is clearly in their best longterm interests to keep losing this season, because they’ll hold onto their first-round pick only if it ranks among the top three in the draft. (The tanking will surely end next year, when the pick loses all protection – meaning that the Lakers will be focused on winning in 2017-18.)
In Boston, on the other hand, there is urgency to acquire another star or two in the months to come. By the summer of 2018 the Celtics will have either committed big money (or risked losing) Thomas and Avery Bradley in free agency; expensive longterm decisions must also be made on Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk, who are currently on frugal rookie deals. This figures to be their last summer with maximum space under the cap, and the Celtics will be more than disappointed if they fail to come away without a star to go with Thomas and Horford, who last July became the biggest free agent ever to sign with Boston.
A trade – whether it happens in the next three weeks or this summer – is the most likely vehicle, not only because recruiting free agents is so unreliable, but also because the Celtics currently have more young talent than they can afford to keep. Their only untradeable piece figures to be the potential top pick they’ll be receiving from Brooklyn, which gives Boston its best hope of acquiring the rarest of all players – a future star who can potentially become the No. 1 player on a championship team.
If the Celtics hold onto their assets from the Brooklyn trade – Brown as the No. 3 choice last year, along with the high lottery picks they’ll be adding in 2017 and 2018 – then those players could be ready to drive Boston into title contention sooner than later, based on the talent and experience the Celtics have been accumulating these last three years. And so this reunion with the Lakers was not spent reliving the past so much as it was about what may be.
Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here or follow him on Twitter.
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