BOSTON — The two teams that meet on the parquet floor at TD Garden on Friday won’t be very good. But only one of them looks to be an outright mess.
Once a plucky group that rallied together while Kobe Bryant began the season on the shelf, the Los Angeles Lakers have devolved into one of the least fun-to-watch teams in the NBA. Matters came to a head Wednesday, when shot-happy guard Nick Young got into a physical altercation with half the Phoenix Suns team and nobody in Lakers jersey came to his defense.
After a team meeting Friday morning, Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni and the players said all the right things. Yet there is little doubt that when the ball goes up Friday night, with Rajon Rondo expected back in the lineup for the Celtics, that one squad in this historic rivalry is coming apart just as its counterpart is becoming whole.
“They’re fine,” D’Antoni told reporters after shootaround. “We talked about it. It’s just, we need to be more aggressive. Not, per se, in fighting, but being more aggressive in playing. It really just kind of showed that we don’t have enough fight in the dog right now.”
Young will not be in the lineup against the Celtics as he serves a one-game suspension issued by the league for throwing punches at Alex Len and Goran Dragic of the Suns during L.A.’s 121-114 loss. It won’t quite be addition by subtraction — Young, the Lakers’ leading scorer, is valuable to the team despite his sometimes selfish offensive play — but it could present problems for the Celtics by making the Lakers’ sets more cohesive. Young has a Jordan Crawford-like tendency to go off the reservation sometimes, which has frustrated veteran forward Pau Gasol and, more recently, newcomer Kendall Marshall.
It says a lot about both teams that neither is in position to count on a victory, not even with Young out and Rondo making his first appearance in a game in nearly a year. The Lakers have lost six games in a row and 12 of their last 13. The Celtics are looking for their first win streak in almost a month after losing nine straight before Wednesday’s victory over the Toronto Raptors.
Larry Bird versus Magic Johnson, this ain’t.
Still, the Celtics will try to limit the good looks for a Lakers team that needs to outscore its opponents, not that the Lakers’ offense is any juggernaut. The Lakers are 16th in the NBA in points per game with a bad, but not god-awful, 102.8 offensive rating. The Celtics are dead in the middle of the pack of defensive rating by allowing 105.6 points per 100 possessions, while the Lakers are putrid on defense, second from last in the league in points allowed per game and fifth from the bottom in points allowed per possession.
In other words, if the Celtics can be typically average defensively and just a notch above terrible on offense — a possibility, given Rondo’s return — they could walk out of the Garden with their first winning streak of 2014. Just don’t expect the game to bring back memories of the 1987 NBA Finals.