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Feb 23, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) and Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) shake hands after the game at Staples Center. The Lakers defeated the Celtics 114-112. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub

The Celtics host the Lakers Saturday night in the first meeting between the two teams since Jayson Tatum dropped a career-high 41 points on LeBron and Co. at Staples Center last February. The Green ultimately lost that battle. A little more than two weeks later, the NBA season went on a four-month hiatus.

When play resumed and the Milwaukee Bucks got bounced from the playoffs, many expected the Celtics to meet LA in the Finals. It wasn’t to be, and the Lakers collected their 17th championship as a franchise, tying Boston for the most all-time.

The defending champs aren’t resting on their laurels. Following a flurry of offseason moves, LA won 14 of its first 18 contests. While they’ve dropped the last two, that’s still good for the third-best record in the NBA, percentage points behind the Clippers and the streaking Utah Jazz.

Meanwhile, the Celtics – losers of four of their last six – have dropped from first to fifth in a crowded Eastern Conference.

Anthony Irwin of the Locked On Lakers recently provided me with some insight about what’s new, what’s the same, and why the Lakers continue to be the betting favorite to repeat in 2021.

Lights-out shooting

The Celtics get their biggest test of the season so far on Saturday against LeBron James and the Lakers. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

The Celtics get their biggest test of the season so far on Saturday against LeBron James and the Lakers. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

“The Lakers have done something that’s really rare for reigning champions in that they’ve revamped their identity, Irwin noted. “Last year they were this team that defended their tails off, got out in transition, and overwhelmed teams that way: with athleticism, length, and physicality.

“This year’s team is different, in that they’re very good in the half-court…with execution, ball movement and shooting. They’re shooting the lights out.”

That could pose a problem for Boston’s leaky defense, which surrendered 56 percent shooting in a loss to the Spurs on Wednesday.

Just when you thought it was safe…

Irwin mentioned a handful of Lakers having success from behind the arc, notably, 36-year old LeBron James, who appears to have added new dimension to his game in his 18th season.

“Last year, when [LeBron] was in the pick and roll, the most effective defense [opponents] would use on him [was] the deep drop. For the most part, that was the safest way to go about guarding that pick and roll.”

“This year, he’s shooting that shot confidently…and that opens up everything for him. Because once he’s made the first couple of three-pointers, and teams have to come out of that deep drop coverage, that opens up the lane, and the Lakers are shooting so well…the key is just so open.”

“That has really enabled him to not only just dominate but dominate easily. It looks so effortless to him. At this age, it’s ridiculous – it’s the kind of thing you sit back and laugh at.”

Another level

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens compared LeBron James to Tom Brady recently. (Raj Mehta-USA TODAY)

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens compared LeBron James to Tom Brady recently. (Raj Mehta-USA TODAY)

Celtics coach Brad Stevens – foreshadowing the unenviable task of game planning for one of the greats – echoed Irwin’s sentiment during his Wednesday conversation with Zolak & Bertrand.

“LeBron’s still the best athlete on the floor every night. That’s the part that’s like ‘wow.’ He’s amazing.”

 Stevens also compared James to former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady:

“Guys have really, really done a good job of focusing on how to recover, how to manage the long season, how to make sure they prioritize their body, how to work hard on their body. And I think Tom is well documented in his commitment to that, and I think LeBron is well documented in his commitment to that.”

“The other part – that I think both those guys have – is that steely resolve. None of [the noise] bothers them. In fact, if anything, they are kind of motivated by it. Things that would knock somebody else down a peg…they just keep going.”

Even better?

Having James and perennial All-Star Anthony Davis in tow makes it easier for GM Rob Pelinka to tinker with the roster, which he certainly did in moving rotation players like Danny Green, Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard over the summer. The Laker supporting cast now looks almost entirely different: with Dennis Schroder at the point and Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol in the frontcourt.

“This is the most talented Lakers roster of my lifetime,” Irwin stated. “We don’t know what the result is going to be, but top to bottom, one through 10…it’s the best roster of my lifetime. Showtime was a little before my time [as a fan]. Given the way that the Lakers are shooting the ball so far this year, it’s hard to bet against them.”

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Indeed, they’re at the top of everybody’s Power Rankings. The Celtics are in the mix and could certainly come out of the East [for the record, Irwin says he’s most afraid of Philly, who defeated LA on Wednesday night] but rival fans can almost taste the franchise’s 18th banner.

“We want 18. Worst-case scenario here would be the Lakers being the favorites and Boston somehow walking away with 18 before the Lakers get there…that’s what a rivalry is.”

The Lakers want to assert their dominance against a presumed contender. The Celtics are looking to find their footing after navigating injury and COVID concerns. Tipoff is at 8:30 p.m. Saturday night on 98.5 The Sports Hub.

Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.