The Lakers and their stars were at their best, the Eastern Conference favorite firing their best shots at LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook and only landing glancing blows.
It happened seven games, in Milwaukee, on a night when the Lakers cooked up such a great performance that anything sort of felt possible.
The pieces were there. The possibility existed. The Lakers were figuring it out if things could go just right.
But here, back in Los Angeles, on Tuesday night, their performance against the Boston Celtics, was a reminder that the NBA doesn’t quite work that way.
Sometimes, it’s a little uglier, a little messier to figure out.
None of it made sense. Marcus Smart in gold sneakers, Russell Westbrook in green shoes, the Celtics blowing a 20-point lead only to see the Lakers cough up a 13-point advantage in the fourth quarter.
The Lakers slumped and slunk their way through the first 12 minutes against their biggest rival, telling their fans that any emotion they brought with them into the building wasn’t going to be needed. But a furious 18-0 run in the second half flipped the game totally on its head, putting the Lakers in front while the Celtics chased.
But Davis missed two key free throws, the Lakers’ offense went ice cold in overtime and the Boston Celtics came all the way back to win 122-118 in overtime – a classic game in the team’s regular-season history but a brutal finish considering the position the Lakers were in after coming all the way back.
Davis had 37 points and 12 rebounds, James had 33 nine rebounds and nine assists and Westbrook had 20 points and 14 rebounds off the bench. But, led by Tatum’s 44, it wasn’t enough.
The loss, like that win against the Bucks, showed the Lakers could credibly fight with the NBA’s best. But unlike the game in Milwaukee, the Lakers’ flaws were too evident early as the Celtics easily pushed ahead early.
It seemed like the latest piece of information that would make the Lakers’ next move murky.
Everything that’s happened this season up to and including their 27th game of the season Tuesday has been to make it clear whether this roster is worth investing into or not – and that 20-point early deficit joined some big chunks of the season, where that answer seemed like an obvious “No.”
Injuries and consistency issues for James and Davis were enough to dampen even the most optimistic. Supporting cast growing pains could easily have been assigned to lack of talent as much as they could have to fit or role. And the obvious roster questions – they led to obvious issues.
Critics of the Lakers’ guard-heavy roster this offseason said they were too small. Tuesday, unsurprisingly, they got beat-up on the glass and shot over on the perimeter.
Critics also pointed to the roster imbalance – the necessity for all three of the team’s stars to play well because so much of the team’s available money was committed to the peak of the roster (leaving the base to be made up of players signed with roster exceptions).
And for as much the Lakers’ win in Milwaukee could ease those concerns, they were back in the foreground again Tuesday with James and Davis giving the Lakers a lot and the supporting class scuffling to make an impact around them in the first half.
But like so much with the Lakers this season, figuring out what would happen next was big mystery.
At shootaround Tuesday morning, James said the game against the Celtics would be one of their “biggest tests.”
“A lot of great teams in our league and they happen to be one of them,” James said. “That first game off a road trip is always tough so it’s good when you’ve got to be even more locked in with a team that you know is really good.”
The Lakers, of course, got off to a slow start.
The Celtics, fresh off a blowout loss to the Clippers the night before and ending a long roadtrip, played with an unmatched energy early. They scored on easy layups, opening things up from the three-point line where they quickly got hot.
Jayson Tatum, who had struggled some over the Celtics’ last three games, started to just shoot over the defenders in front of him.
But if it was predictable that the Lakers would open the game carrying some of the road still with them, it was probably as sure of a bet that the road would catch up with Boston, too.
The Lakers defense slowly tightened after allowing 37 first-quarter points, absolutely smothering Boston for huge chunks of the second half as the Lakers turned a 20-point deficit into a 13-point lead in the fourth.
But Tatum re-heated, pushing Boston closer and closer as the Celtics started their sprint to the finish. The Celtics closed to within two on a Marcus Smart triple and tied the game on a Tatum jumper after Davis’ misses – forcing overtime.
By then, the Lakers tank was empty and any talk of them having figured it all out went silent.