After the Los Angeles Lakers won the franchise’s 17th title in October, matching the Boston Celtics' championship output, we wondered which side of the rivalry might win the race to Banner 18.
The general feeling was that the Lakers had the better chance in the near term but that the Celtics were positioned to contend for a longer window. Three months later, as the Celtics and Lakers prepare to meet for the first time during the 2020-21 season, we revisited the question and wondered if the continued ascension of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown has positioned Boston to be even more of a legitimate title threat now than we might have suggested in the aftermath of last season.
A visit from LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the defending champs could offer an early-season measuring stick for the finally healthy Celtics on Saturday night.
Tristan Thompson, who won a title alongside James in Cleveland, is bullish on Boston’s title chances, in part because of what he’s seen from Tatum and Brown. He even sees shades of James in the way the Jays have worked to become elite players.
"Just their work ethic. A lot of talented players that I’ve been around, they definitely work on their game but these guys work on another level," said Thompson. "They are in the gym, getting extra shots after [practice] for an extra hour and it’s like, we got a game at 7. I’m even like, ‘Are you guys sure you guys want to keep shooting? I need you to hit some shots tonight.’ That’s their routine. It reminds me a lot of LeBron, Kyrie [Irving], and even, crazy to say, but Collin Sexton, another young kid where he’d always be in the gym and just live in the gym. …
"They put the time in and the effort in. What you put into the game, it comes back and you reap the benefits. It’s showing with their play this year, with jumping up and playing at a different level and playing at a high clip. They deserve it."
Thompson grew up a fan of Kevin Garnett and was rooting for the Celtics when they clashed with the Lakers in the 2010 Finals. He’s excited to get thrust into the rivalry but only laments not having fans inside the Garden for Saturday’s game.
After getting his first taste of playing alongside a finally healthy core of Brown, Tatum, Kemba Walker, and Marcus Smart on Wednesday night in San Antonio, Thompson is eager to see the Celtics start rounding into form.
"I think, for us, it's about everyone just kind of building that chemistry," said Thompson. "Even though these guys have played with each other last season, guys get better, sometimes roles change, and with new people coming in like myself, we're just all just trying to gel. This team has a lot of potential.
"Everyone knows going into the season how good this team could be. And now it's on us to keep chipping away, day by day. Of course, there’s going to be nights where we feel like we took a step back or we're frustrated that we didn't get to win. But as long as you stay the course and guys keep working every day, good things will come our way."
Boston hasn’t played defense to a high enough level to be considered a true contender but the potential is there. The Celtics have had a top-6 defense in each of the past three seasons and defense has typically been the calling card of Brad Stevens’ best teams.
Thompson, Boston’s big free-agent splurge this offseason, acknowledged he hasn’t played to his full potential yet. He noted how being off the court for nine months during the pandemic, then missing training camp due to a hamstring injury, and then missing a week of play while in COVID-19 contact tracing, hasn’t helped him settle in with his new team. But he’s confident he can help this team reach its lofty goals.
Saturday night’s clash ought to have a playoff feel and bring out the best of both sides. Thompson is eager to see how his new team stacks up against James and the champs.
"[James is] the best player on the planet and arguably one of the best players to ever play this game," said Thompson. "So to go up against another great player, in Boston, wearing the green, and him wearing the Laker gold, it’s going to be bloodbath."