Lakers vs Celtics Picks and Predictions: Rivalry Brings Best Out of LeBron

LeBron James is chasing history, and has a chance to help his team make a statement during NBA Rivals Week. See why our NBA picks are banking on his scoring spree to keep going as he closes in on Kareem.

Last Updated: Jan 28, 2023 9:37 AM ET Read Time: 4 min
LeBron James LA Lakers
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The first-ever NBA Rivals Week has been a smashing success, with outstanding games between some of the league’s best teams and most dynamic players. But they’ve saved the best for last, the rivalry that gave us Magic vs. Bird and arguably saved the NBA: it’s the Los Angeles Lakers taking on their oldest foe, the Boston Celtics on Saturday, January 28.

While the Celtics have title-or-bust aspirations, the Lakers came into the season with much more modest expectations after missing the playoffs last season. But at this moment in the season, it’s LeBron James and the Lakers with momentum and the Celtics trying to end a three-game skid.

Our NBA picks and predictions for Lakers vs. Celtics are taking advantage of one of the lowest point props that LeBron James has received this season, believing he’ll show out once more in this historic matchup.

Lakers vs Celtics best odds

Lakers vs Celtics picks and predictions

Conversations about LeBron James are kind of funny.  He’s no worse than the second-best player ever, still producing at a level worthy of an All-Star starter selection (his latest makes 19 consecutive starts, an NBA record). And yet it’s easy to get so caught up in where LeBron’s legacy stacks up all time, how he’s doing this at 38 years old, or with his current quest to unseat fellow Laker legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, that you sometimes forget just to watch, appreciate and evaluate the player he actually is on a nightly basis.

There were moments last season when I wasn’t convinced that James was still playing winning basketball. The counting stats and efficiency were impressive enough, but you didn’t feel the way he fit into the Lakers ecosystem was really moving the needle. Instead of that trend worsening this year, however, it’s completely reversed course. LeBron is once more the engine of his team, and his play has helped drag the Lakers to 23-26 and a borderline miraculous 10-9 record when Anthony Davis went out with his foot injury.

James has averaged 33.6 points in January and has scored 40 or more points in three separate games this month. He’s done all that despite his 3-pointer deserting him at times, and while he’s not the vertical leaper he once was, he can still surprise most any opponent with his quick burst to the basket. He makes those power moves more judiciously now, but they’re no less effective. He’s getting to the rim more this season than in any of his past three. And of course, he’s still finishing at a robust 76% when he gets there.

And yet this is the lowest I’ve seen LeBron’s points total for the season, and I think it’s a pretty obvious mistake by oddsmakers. Yes, James is coming off a 20-point outing in his last game, but that came against the San Antonio Spurs, arguably the worst team in the NBA. The Lakers were in chill mode until the fourth quarter, when they rapidly and definitively seized control of the game. There will be no chill against their most hated rivals on national TV, particularly as Boston has stumbled of late and might actually be beatable. 

James is a basketball historian, acutely aware of his own place in basketball lore and how certain games between certain franchises echo more loudly in the annals of time. There’s no bigger regular basketball season game anywhere than Lakers vs. the Celtics, all the more so with LeBron himself taking part. That showed through clearly enough when he totaled 33 points in their first game this season, and since then LeBron has only played better.

In a similarly high-profile game against crosstown rivals the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday, LeBron dropped 46 points. That game is instructive in more ways than one, as the Clippers and Celtics have a similar team construction in many respects, relying on a wing-heavy roster. But none of them are well suited to handle James, and neither is Al Horford despite his youthful play this season. 

When the lights are brightest, LeBron always brings his best. I expect him to do just that on Saturday night.

My best bet: LeBron James Over 28.5 points (-108)

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Lakers vs Celtics spread analysis

It’s becoming clear that the Celtics really miss Marcus Smart. Not only is he a stout defender and the emotional leader of the team, but he’s clearly their best playmaker at 7.2 assists per game. His playmaking takes the load off Jayson Tatum’s plate, something that, for all his many talents, Jaylen Brown does little to help with. 

That increased burden on Tatum might explain some of his poorer outings of late. Smart has missed three straight, all Celtics losses, and they’re also 0-5 against the spread in their past five games. They’re also not putting the bad teams away quickly, something they were doing consistently to start the year. They’re only 3-7-1 ATS in their last 11 games against teams with a losing record.

The Lakers, for their part, are playing pretty well. They’re 10-4 ATS in their last 14 games overall, including 4-1 in their last five on the road. But the record looks slightly more impressive than it actually is. They’re only beating the spread by 1.1 points on average in the past two weeks per Cleaning the Glass and only have a +1.3-point differential. 

Their record against the spread looks quite a bit worse against quality competition too. Los Angeles is just 6-16-1 ATS in their last 23 games against winning teams.

Lakers vs Celtics Over/Under analysis

Despite an older roster, the Lakers continue to play at one of the fastest paces in the NBA. Darvin Ham has clearly identified that their roster construction doesn’t make them well-suited to a grind-it-out halfcourt style. Instead, either Russell Westbrook or LeBron gets a live ball rebound and tries to run it down an opponent's throat early and often. They score the second most transition points off live ball rebounds per Cleaning the Glass.

Normally, that doesn’t work all that well against Boston. The Celtics are a highly disciplined team, and they have textbook floor balance. But they proved susceptible to that very strategy against the New York Knicks on Thursday, and if they don’t bring their A-game from the start, the Lakers might find success there. That could push this toward the Over at 237.5. Notably, the Over has cashed in eight of the last 10 games these two teams have played.

Still, whatever this recent blip, the Celtics are a Top-5 defense and have continued to play like one. It’s more their offense that has been short-circuiting. That’s seen the Under cash in four of Boston’s last five games. The Lakers defend much better when they have two days off, as they have in preparation for Saturday’s game. The Under has cashed in five straight games where LA is playing on two days of rest.

Lakers vs Celtics betting trend to know

Celtics are 0-5 ATS in their last five games overall. Find more NBA betting trends for Lakers vs. Celtics.

Lakers vs Celtics game info

Location: TD Garden, Boston, MA
Date: Saturday, January 28, 2023
Tip-off: 8:30 p.m. ET

Lakers vs Celtics key injuries

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