BOSTON — That’s Boston for you.
The fans are always hostile, the team always seems tough, and – for the most conspiracy-minded fans out there – the whistle always seems to go the other way.
That’s at least what the Lakers took out of their latest trip to TD Garden Arena, where they played the top team in the NBA tough, but were, for the second time this season, pushed to overtime against the Celtics on a no-call that seemed outrageous to LeBron James. And in that extra frame, they got behind early, leaving the lair of their biggest rival with a 125-121 defeat.
Replays upheld what James fervently believed: that Jayson Tatum hit his left arm when he went for what would have been a game-winning drive to the rack. But his 41 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists were not enough to carry the Lakers (23-27), who remained in 13th place in the West, were swept in the two-game regular season series against the Celtics (36-15).
“The best player on Earth can’t get a call. It’s amazing,” said Lakers coach Darvin Ham afterward.
The biggest missed call was merely the topper in a game in which Boston took 39 free throws (making 34) to the Lakers’ 20 attempts from the line. The Lakers also got two technical fouls in the game, pushing officiating to one of the hottest topics of the game.
It was a shame in a contest that otherwise shaped up to be a scintillating chapter in the rivalry, with the Lakers playing from ahead for most of the second half despite the vast difference between the two teams’ records. The Celtics were led by Jaylen Brown’s 37 points, and he wound up pushing the game to OT with four seconds left.
Five other Lakers scored in double figures besides James, including Anthony Davis who had 16 points and 10 rebounds in his second game back from injury. But the big man was decidedly absent from many of the Lakers’ late offensive possessions, a return to a discouraging trend from early in the year.
Of all the Lakers’ trusted closers, Patrick Beverley (15 points) emerged as the one who was poised to win the game for them.
The starting guard first hit a catch-and-shoot three with 52 seconds left off a dime from James. But after Malcolm Brogdon hit a pair of free throws to tie it up, the 6-foot-1 Beverley elevated into the unlikely, dunking a missed corner 3-pointer by Davis – the 34-year-old has only ever dunked eight previous times in his career.
When Beverley made one of two free throws with 14.8 seconds left, it seemed like the 3-point lead would be enough to eke out of TD Garden with a win. But then Jaylen Brown managed a lay-up, getting to the line when Beverley hit his head to tie it up with four seconds remaining.
Out a timeout, James found a lane to the rim and finished just shy as the buzzer sounded, but no sooner had he landed than he was bouncing up and down in fury. Tatum had hit his arm on the attempt, and James was incredulous that he would not get the same deference from the officials as Brown.
The Lakers’ infuriated reaction to the final play of regulation wound up costing them a point even before overtime began: Beverley was given a technical when he angrily approached head official Eric Lewis with a camera from a team photographer to make a point for the referees to take a second look.
James’ pursuit of the NBA’s all-time scoring record, held by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar remains relentless. With 41 points, he’s now just 117 from passing Abdul-Jabbar’s 38,387-point mark.
James and the Lakers often find fans wherever they go on the road – Boston is not one of those places. James was met with boos as early as an hour before tip when he jogged to the parquet to warm up. One of James’ old Celtics rivals, Paul Pierce, was jeering the Lakers from the sideline in clover-patterned pajama pants.
Coach Darvin Ham decided to stick with a starting lineup that has gone 5-2 – but bring Davis, Rui Hachimura and Lonnie Walker IV (in his first action since Dec. 28) off the bench. That made quite a reserve unit for the Lakers, but James in particular started out in his midseason form with 10 quick points in his first stint.
One of the players who did seem affected by the TD Garden hostility was Russell Westbrook. While his playmaking – like an end-of-quarter lob to Davis – helped get teammates going, his own shot again faltered. And with each of his six straight misses to open the game, the Boston crowd goaded him louder and louder to shoot.
Westbrook wound up just 4 for 12 in the game with 12 points. He did not play in the fourth quarter, but Ham turned to him midway through OT as the Lakers slumped.
But the Celtics had a slump of their own in the second quarter, shortly after earning their largest lead of the game. After Luke Kornet hit a free-throw to put them up by nine, the Lakers smothered them for the rest of the half, holding them to just 3 for 13 shooting for the last nine minutes.