BOSTON — These are not the Boston Celtics that Rajon Rondo left behind almost a year ago, a roster of All-Stars just a couple of seasons removed from their second trip to the NBA Finals in three years.
His pinpoint passes went for naught. The defense that helped the franchise win it all in 2008 was missing. Needing a big play in the final seconds, the best option Rondo could come up with was himself.
Rondo returned from a knee injury and missed a 3-pointer that could have sent the game into overtime, sending the Los Angeles Lakers to a 107-104 victory on Friday night.
“I thought he made a lot of plays down the stretch,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after seeing his All-Star point guard in a game for the first time. “Just came up a little bit short. But I was glad he had the ball.”
Pau Gasol had 24 points and 13 rebounds for Los Angeles, and Kendall Marshall added 19 points and 14 assists, including a 3-pointer with 69 seconds left to give the Lakers their first lead of the second half. Ryan Kelly scored 20 points and Wesley Johnson added 11 points and 11 rebounds.
“It was an incredible experience for me,” said Kelly, who added a pair of free throws with 9.4 seconds remaining as the Lakers snapped a six-game losing streak. “We were sliding there a little bit. We needed it and we made the plays that made the difference.”
Kelly Olynyk scored a career-high 25 points for Boston. Rondo, who was limited to 20 minutes in his first game since tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament on Jan. 25, 2013, had eight points, four assists and two rebounds.
The Celtics missed their last seven shots while giving up 11 points in a row – including three straight 3-pointers.
“We missed some shots in the fourth quarter, but we’ve got to do it defensively,” said Rondo, who was announced as the team captain before the game.
“I found out when you found out,” he said. “It really didn’t hit me at first. After I came back to the huddle, a couple of guys told me congrats on being named captain. It’s definitely an honor.”
The Celtics led by as many as 13 points in the second quarter and still held a 97-94 advantage when Rondo, who played about five minutes each quarter, checked back in with 4:53 left. Olynyk soon made a jumper from the top of the key and then Rondo hit Avery Bradley for a 3-pointer on the wing to extend the lead to eight points.
It was 104-96 when Johnson made a 3-pointer, and then two offensive rebounds gave the Celtics three tries to score, but they came away with nothing. Jodie Meeks made a 3-pointer to make it a two-point game, and then Marshall made one to give the Lakers the lead.
With Rondo bringing the ball down, the crowd rose to its feet. But the four-time All-Star back-rimmed a long shot. The Lakers were forced into a shot-clock violation, but Bradley missed a runner. Boston forced a jump ball – and then a rejump when the tip went out of bounds – but Johnson got it to Kelly, who was fouled.
The free throws left the Celtics with a three-point deficit and less than 10 seconds.
The crowd worked itself into a “Beat L.A.!” chant.
Rondo dribbled the clock down and was left alone for a 3-pointer, but it missed badly, and in the scramble for the rebound the buzzer went off.
“At the end we did a better job. We still have to do better,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Let’s not get carried away. It is one night and let’s see if we can repeat it.”
The longstanding rivalry between Boston and Los Angeles has lost some of its luster with the rest of Boston’s New Big Three gone and Lakers star Kobe Bryant recovering from a broken bone in his left knee. In fact, the Celtics and Lakers had never been this bad when they faced each other: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, their combined winning percentage of .354 (28-51) was the lowest ever for the longtime rivals in a head-to-head matchup (after the first five games of the season).
What’s worse, the Lakers had won only one game since the weekend before Christmas, and Boston had won just two.