Every conversation about whether or not the Los Angeles Lakers can win the title this year always comes back to the same talking point: Their lack of signature victories over a contender.
As our own Sabreena Merchant pointed out this morning, “it’s reductive to say that the Lakers have struggled against good teams. They have two quality wins against Miami, a couple more against Denver and Utah, and an impressive national TV win over Houston without Anthony Davis. They are also just one of seven teams with a winning record against opponents with winning records.”
All that noted, the Lakers are still winless against the teams that really, truly matter in the title conversation. They haven’t beaten the LA Clippers (0-2). They lost their only game against the Milwaukee Bucks. They lost to the Rockets once the team improved after the trade deadline, and got destroyed by the Boston Celtics in their one matchup this season.
What’s that? You don’t think the Celtics should be included in that group? Well, given my old tweets sent as the young Celtics and Kemba Walker struggled while playing for Team USA this summer, I regret to inform you that I was very wrong, and Boston very much appears to be a contender. That status makes their match-up with the Lakers on Sunday both a potential pitfall and an opportunity, giving it greater importance than even a normal game between the two age-old rivals.
Mike Prada of SB Nation did a phenomenal job earlier this week of breaking down the reasons that the Celtics appear to be a contender, so I won’t repeat all of them here, but to distill it down to a single stat, one marker that often denotes whether or not a team is a contender is whether or not they have both a top-five defense and offense.
This season, so far three teams qualify for that statistical marker. The Lakers, Bucks and... no, not the Clippers — they rank sixth in both categories — but the Celtics, who rank third in the league in defensive efficiency and fifth in the league in offensive efficiency. The Lakers rank fifth and fourth in those categories, respectively, according to NBA.com.
All of this means that while the Celtics will undoubtedly present a challenge for the Lakers — if their day off in Los Angeles on a Saturday doesn’t sink them before the game even starts — but also a chance for the team to seize the type of impressive, nationally televised victory over a fully formed contender that they just haven’t been able to manage this year.
The Celtics won’t make that easy. Walker may be 1-28 against teams with LeBron James all-time, but this is really the first good team he’s played on (he got his first win as a result), and he’s a dynamic threat both on and off the ball for Boston this year, the type of quick point guard that the Lakers’ own perimeter corps will have to be at their best to slow down. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are the types of big, dynamic wings that have given the Lakers problems, and Marcus Smart is the exact type of irritant that has shown a propensity to rattle L.A. at times this year.
And hey, it’s the Celtics. You know, the team the Lakers have competed with for the entirety of NBA history, serving as a punching bag in the days of Bill Russell before nearly catching them in total banners (the Lakers have 16, and the Celtics have 17) because Boston has only won one championship since the 80’s. If the Lakers let them sweep the season series, that’s going to stick in fans’ craw for a while.
The Lakers may constantly talk about every game counting the same, but this one is just bigger for a few reasons, not the least of which is because Staples Center is sure to remind the purple and gold that they should always want to kick the Celtics’ asses. And their last loss is serving as a motivating factor, too.
“Worst loss of the season for us. We didn’t play our best at all, so we remember that for sure,” said Lakers forward Anthony Davis. “I’m pretty sure they’re thinking ‘we beat them guys by about 40.’ They’re thinking about that, and we’re obviously thinking about it, so we’re going to come out a little different.”
But this would be a must-watch game even if it wasn’t for all the bad blood between these two organizations, fanbases, and even LeBron and Rajon Rondo’s personal vendetta’s against the guys in green (although all those factors certainly ratchet up the drama). If the Lakers can come out victorious, this would be the type of win that starts to shift narratives, and more importantly, would prove without a doubt that L.A. can beat teams at the very top of the league. If the Lakers can win against the Celtics on Sunday, it’s a game fans can point to as evidence that hey, they can beat true contenders for the title, the type of victory that can be the start of building a more impressive resume.
If they can’t... well... that would be extremely disappointing, and only reinforce the idea that this team is a notch below being a true contender, and that they may need to expedite their turn to the buyout market for help.
So yeah, this is a big game, in more ways than one. Let’s see if the Lakers can rise to the challenge, and prove that they’re as good as we think they can be.
The Lakers will tip off against the Celtics at 12:30 p.m., and be televised nationally on ABC. You can get tickets to the game via StubHub here. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links.
Notes and Updates
- After this preview published, Kemba Walker and Robert Williams were both been ruled out for this game by the Celtics.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.