BOSTON — In a season filled with losses, this was a bad one.
The Celtics led the Los Angeles Lakers by eight points with less than three minutes remaining on Friday, but crumbled down the stretch and allowed the Lakers to score the final 11 points in a 107-104 loss. The defeat ruined the good vibes of point guard Rajon Rondo‘s return after nearly a year away due to a torn ACL, dampened a career-best performance by Kelly Olynyk and dashed the Celtics’ hopes of their first win streak of 2014.
Despite all that, Rondo maintained an upbeat attitude about his team’s prospects, even after getting his first up-close look at them on the court.
“I expect to win every night,” Rondo said after his team lost to a squad that had lost 12 of its previous 13 games. “I compete, and I think we have a lot of guys on this team who compete the same way I do.”
Rondo tallied eight points, four assists, one rebound and two steals in just 19 minutes, 25 seconds of action. Celtics coach Brad Stevens said for days that he would not stray from a limit of 20 minutes in four five-minute spurts, even if Rondo was playing well, and he was true to his word. Right after Rondo erupted for all eight of his points in a 1:32 span in the second quarter, Stevens almost immediately subbed him out in favor of Phil Pressey.
Hot or not, Rondo’s five minutes were up.
“I thought he looked pretty good out there and he was obviously really rusty in the first quarter, but that was to be expected,” Stevens said. “Then he got on that run in the second quarter and did a lot there. I thought he made a lot of plays down the stretch, too. Just came up a little bit short, but I was glad he had the ball.”
Rondo couldn’t find the bottom of the net before or after that second-quarter spurt, however. He missed his first three shots of the game and both shots he attempted in the second half, including a 3-pointer with one second left that would have tied the game. It wasn’t a win, but Rondo expected to win. As long as he’s surrounded by NBA players — and probably even if he weren’t — Rondo believes he can win any game.
It was a good day to be a Kelly.
Lakers forward Ryan Kelly used a sneaky shot fake to send just about every frontcourt Celtics defender flying at some point during the game, en route to 20 points. On the Celtics’ side, Olynyk easily had his best game as a pro. The rookie scored a career-high 25 points and handed out seven assists, also a career-best, in 32 productive minutes.
He looked a lot more like the player who showed flashes of promise early in the regular season, before a sprained ankle sidelined him for 10 games, than the lost rookie who has been mostly a minus presence since his return.
“Kelly’s been playing well,” Gerald Wallace said. “I think he was playing well before he got hurt. Now, he’s starting to get his confidence back in his ankle. He’s getting his rhythm back. He’ll get back to playing the way he was before he got hurt.”
Pressey, Olynyk’s fellow rookie, posted yet another promising performance with nine assists and two turnovers while spelling Rondo. The undrafted rookie actually had a better plus-minus than Rondo, who was minus-8 in the game. Pressey was even.
Since Rondo’s return wasn’t enough drama for a Celtics-Lakers game, the officials provided an extra measure of intrigue in the closing seconds. Following a couple of defensive stands, the Celtics forced a jump ball between Wallace and Wesley Johnson with 18 seconds remaining and the Lakers ahead by one point.
The ball went up, and both players appeared to tap the ball, sending it over Rondo’s head and bouncing out of bounds. Rondo might have been able to save it, but he clearly thought Kelly had touched it last, as did most of the Celtics. The referees reviewed the play, but apparently felt either the video was not conclusive or that both players touched the ball at the same time, because they called for a re-jump.
Kelly won the second jump ball straight-up, leading to a pair of free throws by Kelly that forced Rondo to take — and miss — the three to tie at the end of the game.
Wallace was adamant after the game that the ball should have been Boston’s, no review required.
“I didn’t touch it the first time,” Wallace said. “The second time, he just won that one.”
When a reporter wondered if Wallace could have disputed the call more vehemently, the 13-year veteran laughed.
“Really? Argue a call with these NBA refs?” Wallace said. “I don’t think I have a chance of winning that argument. They took a look at it. Obviously, I guess they felt like both our hands hit it, so they jumped it [again]. But I didn’t touch it.”