BOSTON — It was on track to be another monumental loss.
Fresh off a 42-point drubbing at the hands of the Indiana Pacers, LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers found themselves down by 18 points early in the second quarter at TD Garden.
James, as he did in Indiana, sat on the very end of the bench away from his young teammates as the Boston Celtics’ bench blew open the game. LA looked disjointed, disinterested and the Lakers’ season appeared to be sliding down the drain. The injuries to James, Rajon Rondo and Lonzo Ball had caused the Lakers to crater to 10th in the Western Conference and the constant Anthony Davis trade talks appeared to have fractured LA’s locker room.
James was hoisting up 35-footers while Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma threw up brick after brick during a first half that likely had Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka contemplating turning off their televisions.
It was about to be a February funeral for the Purple and Gold, but a late second-quarter run cut the lead to nine at the break and gave the Lakers a jolt of life.
James, Kuzma and the rest of the Lakers shot the lights out in a 42-point third quarter that saw them go 9-for-13 from 3-point range. All told, the Lakers hit a franchise record 22 triples and it still almost wasn’t enough, as the C’s clung to a one-point lead with 11 seconds left.
That’s when an old Celtics legend put on his cape for the Purple and Gold, as Rajon Rondo picked up a loose ball with 1.3 seconds left and knocked down a mid-range jumper to boost the Lakers to a 129-128 win.
“We needed a response,” James said after the win. “Just a lot was going on with our ball club in Indiana, just from the energy — we didn’t need trades and everything, you know, I just think it played a little bit into our heads as a collective group and for us to bounce back like this after the trade deadline. We know this is who we have, this our group. This is a big step for our team.”
Aside from the injury to Ball, who will be out until at least the end of the month, the Lakers are finally getting healthy as James continues to get his game legs back. The 34-year-old noted he has supreme confidence in his team’s ability when they are 100 percent.
“When we’re healthy my (confidence) level is high,” James said. “We’re a team that’s built on depth. As we showed the league when we’re healthy. We’re still missing ‘Zo, but we’re going to hold the fort down until he gets back.”
At 28-27, the Lakers sit 1 1/2 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot and just three games out of the No. 6 spot in the Western Conference. They acquired Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala at the deadline to improve their shooting and now will look to turn Rondo’s heroics into a formula to rediscover the level of play that allowed them to beat the brakes off the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day.
“I think after the deadline, they was able to relax” James said of his teammates. “I thnk it just played with their minds a little bit and then after the three o’clock deadline we all knew that this is who we have and this who we love to be around so they were able to lock in. Even with (Brandon Ingram) not shooting the ball well tonight, his defense on Kyrie and a lot of those guys was exceptional and (Kyle Kuzma) second-half performance was tremendous.”
James hasn’t missed the playoffs since the 2004-2005 season and his teams often have had January lulls before turning on the jets and coasting into the playoffs. Regardless of whether James was instrumental in trying to get the Lakers to trade for Davis, he knows he has to get his locker room back together and he believes this Laker team, if healthy, has what it takes to make a run.
“I think if I’m healthy and we’re a collective group then we can make a push and that’s all it’s about,” James said. “If I continue to get into form and we continue to get in form as a group as well, then we’ll hit our stride.”
With 27 games remaining, it’s now or never for James and the Lakers. These might not be the troops the King wants to go to battle with, but the talent is there for LA to make a deep postseason run.
It’s up to James to bring them together and mold them into the team they were meant to be.
Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images