Sunday at Staples Center was as big as the stage gets when it comes to an NBA game in February. The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, arguably the league’s most prominent rivalry, battled to the final possession in front of a sold-out crowd and a national broadcast. Yes, Boston came up short, but there were plenty of positives in game No. 56.
The Celtics were without point guard Kemba Walker but managed to take LeBron James and the Lakers down to the wire. Jayson Tatum continued his impressive stretch, matching his career-high with 41 points on 12-of-20 shooting. The first-time All-Star has put up ridiculous numbers over the last month, and his latest performance certainly will be the headliner when it comes to Sunday’s Celtics-centric discussions. But who else stuck out?
You won’t be able to tell from the box score, but rookie Romeo Langford quietly provided Boston with quality minutes once again. The 14th overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft has been great defensively of late for Boston, something The Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach recently profiled. The trend continued Sunday, which affirmed that for Langford, the stage doesn’t matter.
Langford logged 15 minutes in the loss as one of eight Celtics to play at least 13 minutes. Out of those eight with double-digit minutes, Langford’s defensive rating of 100 was second-best, trailing only Grant Williams, who posted a rating of 89.7 in 13:06. Langford’s length and footwork have created tough matchups for opponents, even when stars like James seem to think otherwise.
Roughly seven of Langford’s 15 minutes came in the second quarter Sunday, which led some of the Lakers’ rotation players to try and take advantage of the 20-year-old. Despite his minimal experience, Langford held his own on the national stage.
James tried to expose the rookie less than one minute into his second-quarter stint, but Langford didn’t let up.
The four-time most valuable player cleared out Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with the expectation that he’d be able to use space and beat Langford off the dribble. Instead, Langford used some good footwork and body position to stay in front of James, who ultimately missed the contested layup.
Less than two minutes later, Langford was tasked with guarding Kyle Kuzma and passed the test once again.
Kuzma faces up and ultimately puts the ball on the floor, but Langford closes off the lane. He forces Kuzma into the middle of the paint, where Tatum comes in and sends his shot attempt in the other direction.
In his 15 minutes at Staples Center, Langford allowed just one made field goal in 23 partial possessions, according to the NBA’s tracking data. That one bucket came against James, who Langford guarded for 5.4 partial possessions. The only Laker he was matched up against more than James was Kuzma at six partial possessions. Over that stretch, he held him to an 0-for-1 clip from the field with one free throw made on two attempts.
Langford has played double-digit minutes in nine games. He’s never had a defensive rating over 100 in that span, leading Boston to allow an average of just 94.4 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. Yes, it’s a small sample size, but for players with a 20-game minimum, Langford’s defensive rating of 97.4 is the best on Boston’s roster.
Langford’s first professional season got off to a rocky start. Injuries kept him off the court for Las Vegas Summer League and much of training camp. He didn’t play real minutes until Dec. 5 against the Dallas Mavericks, and even those five minutes left more to be desired. Fast forward to late February, though, and the tide has changed. Brad Stevens trusts the Indiana product off the bench, something that’s extremely beneficial for a team that’s struggled to find consistent heath.
If Boston does eventually find the health it’s been searching for, Langford’s role won’t be as substantial. Both he and Stevens know that, but it’s important to recognize they’re both aware of what he can bring at the end of the bench. The Celtics, unlike a lot of NBA teams, are in a luxurious position where they can take their time developing draft picks. Robert Williams spent time in the G League last year, working diligently with assistant Alex Barlow on every facet of his game. Despite an injury, that’s paid off for the 2018 first-rounder. Langford is no different. The Celtics will reap the rewards of Langford’s constant work with assistant Joe Mazzulla if they haven’t already.
No, Sunday didn’t give Langford the chance at crunch-time minutes like some of his appearances over the last month, but it showed more of what he can accomplish off the bench for Boston, even against one of the NBA’s best opponents. That in itself is a major positive.