LOS ANGELES — The Boston Celtics opened a four-game swing through California last week by blowing a lead against the Golden State Warriors, stirring up painful memories of the late-game struggles that prematurely ended recent postseason runs.
Since then, Boston has left no doubt, taking care of business in blowout victories over the Sacramento Kings and the Los Angeles Clippers before ruining the Los Angeles Lakers’ Christmas with a convincing 126-115 win Monday.
The Celtics used the holiday stage to state their case as the NBA’s best team and the favorites to win the 2024 title by immediately seizing control against their archrivals at Crypto.com Arena. Boston improved its record to a league-best 23-6, flashing improved balance on the heels of a splashy offseason that included trades for Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday. All five Celtics starters scored in double figures, and they put away the Lakers (16-15) with suffocating defense in the second half.
The new-and-improved Celtics, who rank third in offensive efficiency, fifth in defensive efficiency and second in point differential, have displayed greater consistency thanks to the league’s most talented starting lineup. Boston can score in volume even when star wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown struggle from the field as they did Monday, and its defense boasts size, athleticism, length and plenty of postseason experience.
“We expected to be good,” Tatum said. “We know what our ultimate goal is. We all know how to play the game. It was only a matter of time for us jelling. We’ve been playing really, really well. … We haven’t had a low-post presence like [Porzingis] since I’ve been on the Celtics. He creates so many problems [for opposing defenses].”
Monday was emblematic of Boston’s ability to find successful counters and auxiliary options. Facing persistent questions about its dependence on the three-point shot, the Celtics went 13 for 42 (31 percent) from deep yet still cruised to the win thanks to a varied attack that applied constant pressure to the Lakers’ interior defense and a defensive effort that held the Los Angeles supporting cast in check.
Porzingis, who finished with a team-high 28 points and 11 rebounds, showed off his midrange game and his ability to finish at the rim. Holiday added 18 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, and Derrick White posted 18 points and 11 assists to go with several key defensive stops down the stretch.
“We’re like a really powerful engine,” Porzingis said. “We just have that margin. If the threes were falling tonight, it would have been a plus-20 or plus-25 game for us. … We’ve been starting to run a bit more, get out in transition more. We’re even more dangerous when we get out and run.”
Boston sought to spoil the centerpiece of the NBA’s Christmas quintuple-header as soon as it started, racing to a 12-0 lead in the first three minutes. Moving the ball ahead of a Lakers defense that was a step slow, the Celtics extended their lead to 18 points before the first quarter ended.
“We came back a little lethargic,” Lakers Coach Darvin Ham said, noting his team had played six of its previous seven games on the road. “The whole Christmas circumstances of the holiday [and an] early game, it took us a little time getting going. … We have a lot of work to do. It’s not so much our level of talent or our competition. We can’t skip the details. We can’t get bored with the details.”
Los Angeles pulled back into the contest during a second quarter marked by injuries and controversy. With four minutes left before halftime, Brown stumbled near midcourt as he tried to shake free for a pass and was rear-ended by Lakers forward LeBron James. The stars lay on the court side by side for an extended stretch; Brown favored his lower back as James held his left knee. The scene brought a hush to a festive building and conjured memories of James’s groin injury against the Golden State Warriors on Christmas 2018.
James exited the game but returned after a brief respite; Brown left Boston’s bench area and sat out for the rest of the half before reentering to start the third quarter.
Moments after the collision, James made it clear he was feeling no ill effects by soaring for a chase-down block of Tatum. To James’s dismay, he was whistled for a foul, prompting a coach’s challenge. The referees ruled that James had cleanly blocked Tatum but that Lakers forward Taurean Prince had committed a foul during the sequence. The ruling put Tatum at the free throw line and prompted boos from the home crowd.
Despite the injury scare and the highlight block that went for naught, the Lakers whittled the Celtics’ lead to one at halftime and took their first lead when James made a jump hook shortly after the break.
Anthony Davis was the Lakers’ driving force, posting a game-high 40 points to go with 13 rebounds and four assists. But the Lakers struggled to crack Boston’s switching defense as the Celtics reasserted themselves in the third quarter.
“They were just clicking on all cylinders,” Davis said. “The turnovers [and] the transition game hurt us tonight. Against a team like that, the best team in the league, they make you pay for it.”
Boston’s defensive scheme used Holiday and Brown to hound James while deploying the 7-foot-2 Porzingis near the rim as a help defender. Though Davis excelled, James finished with just 16 points, tied for his season low, to go with nine rebounds and eight assists. The four-time MVP checked out with nearly three minutes remaining and the result in hand for Boston as Los Angeles fell to 2-6 since winning the inaugural in-season tournament.
“I don’t think we’re where we want to be to compete versus the top teams until we continue to get better and better,” James said. “My knee is a little sore right now. The best thing is that finally the schedule is in our favor with two days before we have to play again. Just a freak play right there between me and Jaylen Brown — happy I was able to walk off under my power.”
Elsewhere on Christmas, Jalen Brunson scored a game-high 38 points to lead the New York Knicks to a 129-122 home victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, avenging three head-to-head losses this season. Milwaukee stars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard scored 32 points apiece, but the Bucks, probably the biggest threat to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference, had no answers for Brunson and conceded 72 points in the paint.
The Denver Nuggets held off the Golden State Warriors, 120-114, in a choppy and over-officiated contest in which Nikola Jokic and Stephen Curry struggled from the field. Jamal Murray scored a game-high 28 points, including back-to-back clutch jumpers in the final four minutes, to lift Denver to its fifth straight win. However, this wasn’t a signature performance for the defending champions, who enter Tuesday as the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed — two games behind the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Miami Heat built a 21-point lead and held off a Philadelphia 76ers comeback bid for a 119-113 home win, but the contest lacked much relevance with headliners Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler sidelined with injuries. Heat rookie Jaime Jaquez Jr. led the way with a game-high 31 points, and 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey endured a 4-for-20 shooting night.
Health absences also marred the nightcap: Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving and Phoenix Suns guard Bradley Beal missed out with injuries. Irving’s absence opened the door for Luka Doncic to come out gunning, and he tallied his 10,000th career point in the first quarter. Doncic reached the milestone in his 358th game, surpassing James (368) among active players as the fastest to 10,000 points.
Even so, the Mavericks and Suns looked incomplete without their core pieces. By the end of an unexpectedly anticlimactic day of basketball, Boston was the clear winner.
“A four-game road trip on the West Coast presents different challenges,” Celtics Coach Joe Mazzulla said. “We came out 3-1, and even in our loss we were playing the right brand of basketball on both ends of the floor. It’s not always going to be perfect. We came in with the theme of reinventing our offense as far as off-ball activity and the ability to execute. I thought we did that. I thought we maintained our defensive identity, too. This time of year is about establishing our identity and sticking to it.”