BOSTON — Jayson Tatum grew up idolizing Kobe Bryant, so he knew all about the Celtics-Lakers rivalry even before becoming part of it.
On Friday night, he put on an offensive show in front of Celtics Hall of Famers Bill Russell and Paul Pierce in the latest chapter.
“It’s a surreal moment, obviously, Bill Russell and the impact he had on the Celtics and the NBA,” Tatum said. “Having someone like Paul come to the game and someone I have a relationship with.
“I remember watching him play,” Tatum said, breaking into a smile. “Now he’s watching me play, that’s crazy.”
Tatum scored 37 points and the Celtics won 130-108 in LeBron James‘ return to the Lakers’ lineup.
Anthony Davis led Los Angeles with 31 points and James finished with 23 in 32 minutes. They each had six rebounds and two assists.
“I felt OK,” James said. “Obviously being out 2 1/2 weeks, I felt kind of like a rookie again, just being away from the game. Excited. Felt good enough that I could trust my body.”
James had missed eight games with an abdominal strain, and the Lakers went 3-5 while he was sidelined. They’ve lost their last four road games.
“It’s never 65 games left (in the season),” James said. “We need to play better.”
Davis agreed, noting the Lakers are deep enough to win even without James.
“We still have enough with our without to win basketball games,” he said.
Tatum started 1 for 5 from the floor before getting his offense flowing, driving hard for a handful of baskets.
“We stress making quick decisions,” Boston coach Ime Udoka said. “When he holds it, the crowds get to him. He was extremely aggressive.”
The teams who have accounted for nearly half of the NBA’s championships with 17 apiece renewed their rivalry in front of a raucous TD Garden crowd that made it seem like a playoff atmosphere from the opening tip.
Russell – introduced as a “true Celtics legend” when he was welcomed back by the PA announcer and shown on the Jumbotron midway into the opening quarter – was seated courtside wearing a hat with the initials “KB” encircled in a yellow heart on the front for Kobe Bryant.
Pierce, who went into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this year, was also courtside.
The Celtics led by 11 points entering the final quarter and opened a 109-94 lead on Tatum’s three-point play with 6:59 remaining. His 3-pointer from the left corner increased it to 116-99 with 5:02 to go.
The Lakers made nine of their initial 12 shots en route to a 38-30 lead after one quarter.
James’ first basket came on a thundering dunk off a drive down the lane 2 1/2 minutes into the game.
Boston erased a 14-point deficit in the second quarter and took the lead before James’ fast-break layup gave the Lakers a 61-60 halftime edge.
The Celtics were without two starters but rallied.
“It shows we’re not perfect, but the fight is in us,” Smart said.
The Celtics opened the second half with a 14-4 surge and led 93-82 entering the fourth.
Asked before the game what the Lakers missed without James, coach Frank Vogel said: “Just quarterbacking it, and leading and running the team.”