BOSTON — Sure, the Boston Red Sox knocked out the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series in October and the New England Patriots dispatched the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl less than a week ago, but let’s get real: The only “Beat L.A.” rivalry with actual juice is Celtics vs. Lakers.
Their rich, storied histories were heightened by the gamesmanship both franchises engaged in as the NBA trade deadline approached Thursday. The Los Angeles Lakers, desperate to pair LeBron James with another superstar, worked feverishly on a package to pry away Anthony Davis, who asked for a trade out of New Orleans just 10 days ago.
When L.A. failed to beat the clock, the biggest winner was its East Coast nemesis, the Boston Celtics, who implored the Pelicans to be patient. And if they could wait, Boston could utilize its treasure trove of young players and draft picks to make its own run at the 25-year-old star come July.
Against this backdrop, the two teams squared off at a raucous TD Garden on Thursday night. Never mind this version of the purple and gold came in mired in 10th place in the Western Conference, fighting to stay above .500. Never mind it has been nine long years since the foes faced each other in the Finals.
They are forever intertwined because of Jack Kent Cooke’s balloons, Boston’s parquet dead spots, Kareem’s skyhook, Larry’s 3-point daggers, Magic’s no-look passes, the bruising back-and-forth battles between Pierce and Kobe.
And now, apparently, because of Rajon Rondo‘s frantic buzzer-beater.
In the final seconds, Kyrie Irving drives to the hoop to put the Celtics ahead, but Rajon Rondo plays hero with a jumper to beat the buzzer.
The former Celtic — a key cog in Boston’s march to a 2008 title over the Lakers — capped a wild evening by swishing a jumper as time expired to stun his former team.
“A storybook ending,” LeBron declared.
It was a thrilling finish to an otherwise crushing day for Lakers fans, who hoped for Davis to don their uniform by the weekend. In one of the most active deadline days ever, a multitude of trades impacted contending teams such as Milwaukee, Toronto and Philadelphia. Yet all eyes remained fixed on two storied franchises that ultimately … did nothing.
The Lakers offered any player outside of LeBron paired with draft picks, nightclub passes and “I Love L.A.” bumper stickers, but the Pelicans stood pat. Now, it will be Boston’s turn to manage the speculation that will run rampant through the season and up to the summer.
Who will be used as bait to lure Davis aboard? Will Boston pull the trigger on young stud Jayson Tatum? Will favorite son Marcus Smart be a casualty of the Davis sweepstakes? Will the Lakers reload and sweeten the pot? Will Kyrie Irving stick around to play alongside his friend Davis?
The inability to land Davis is a blow to Lakers president Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who, when he took over as president of basketball operations, promised the game’s elite stars would flock to L.A. Magic didn’t make the trip to Boston on Thursday night, though his checkered history here is all part of the lore.
It was against the Celtics in 1984 that Magic missed key free throws and was pinned with the dubious nickname “Tragic Magic.” Johnson rebounded with clutch play in the 1985 Finals against Boston, and then, in 1987, lofted his “junior, junior skyhook” over the outstretched arms of Bird, McHale and Parish to drive a stake through their reign.
Magic went on to win five rings, earning the right to gloat to his old pal Larry that he and his Lakers had the upper hand.
Who has it now? As Thompson so aptly stated: check back in July.
In the meantime, an instant classic unfolded in a charged arena teeming with reminders of the past. Kurt Rambis roamed the corridor in his Lakers sweat jacket. Kevin Garnett, the architect of Boston’s 2008 Big Three redux, which won Banner 17 over — who else? — Kobe and the Lakers, sat courtside wearing Celtics green with Rondo emblazoned on the back. Sitting right next to him was Lakers alum Metta World Peace, who punctured KG and Paul Pierce’s dream of a second title with a seminal Game 7 performance at the Garden in the 2010 Finals.
All of this pomp and circumstance (along with the entertaining sidelight of LeBron vs. Kyrie) generated a frenzied playoff atmosphere.
“Anytime these two teams play,” Celtics guard Terry Rozier said, “you better take it seriously. Because all the people who came before and played in this game did.”
Emotions always run high when L.A. and Boston play each other, but the hype was cranked up by LeBron’s Boston debut as a Laker. He dropped a triple-double on his old Cleveland teammate and the boys in green, and sprayed pinpoint passes to the youngster Kyle Kuzma.
Irving, meanwhile, struggled through three quarters, shooting just 3-of-18 from the field.
It was a rare poor shooting performance for the point guard, who is in the midst of a career season. Irving has always been a scorer, but his willingness to play facilitator this season has been noteworthy. His attention to the defensive end has, as of Monday, enabled Irving to post better defensive real plus-minus stats than Russell Westbrook, Mike Conley, Jrue Holiday and Patrick Beverley.
He is serenaded regularly with “MVP” chants from local fans, yet Irving stunned them all last week by backing off from his commitment to unequivocally re-sign with Boston when free agency commences in July. Team sources insist that Irving has told them that the Celtics remain the front-runner. But what precipitated the wavering of the commitment?
Kyrie isn’t really saying.
“Honestly, I’m not completely sure. But it’s hard when people come out with all these rumors about you, saying all these things that you can’t really control,” Boston forward Marcus Morris told ESPN. “A player of [Kyrie’s] caliber doesn’t want to really hear it. Nobody wants stuff put out there that’s completely made up. It’s frustrating.
“I understand where he’s coming from. He wants his freedom. He has the right to dictate his future. I agree with him 100 percent.”
Irving was asked by ESPN what he made of the fact that neither the Lakers nor the Celtics made a significant transaction at the deadline, yet continued to dominate the narrative because of their pursuit of Davis.
“It’s the nature of the business,” Irving shrugged. “It’s been like this for a while.”
Added Morris: “The NBA is weird sometimes. We all need stories. So why not Anthony Davis?”
For now, the teams in pursuit of Davis will go their separate ways as the Lakers try to build on this rousing victory and the Celtics retreat to the film room to dissect how they let yet another game slip away.
Beat L.A.? Not in this game, not on this night.
And yet, you got the feeling the Celtics walked away winners of something far more significant.