BOSTON -- Everyone is prone to a mistake at work once in awhile. The way one responds to that mistake can define the employee as much as the blunder. Show up to the next shift, show you care, show you're capable and show your worth and the initial misstep can actually be a chance to spring forward.
That's the position Lakers Kendall Marshall and Ryan Kelly found themselves in this week after they both essentially had a bad day at the office in the Lakers' 121-114 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday, a game in which Nick Young was ejected for getting involved in a fight after being surrounded by several Suns players, prompting Young to claim he felt like he was abandoned by his teammates.
None of Young's teammates took more flak for their involvement, or lack thereof, in the Suns scuffle than the Lakers' rookie stretch forward and second-year point guard. Kelly, Young's teammate closest to the scene, was criticized for freezing up instead of intervening. Marshall, also on the court when it happened, stayed out by the 3-point line and stared and then had the audacity afterwards to call out Young for starting the fight, failing to cover Young's back and then stabbing him in it.
The Lakers addressed it as a team rather than let it fester, holding an air-it-out meeting Friday in Boston before playing the Celtics later that night. Marshall even pulled a complete 180, apologizing for being a spectator rather than a protector and also for what he said.
Then there was a game to play. And that's where things got interesting.
Because for a Lakers team that was supposed to be all about its aging stars this season, with a backcourt of Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash in their mid-to-late thirties and key contributors like Pau Gasol, Steve Blake and Chris Kaman all having crossed the three-decade threshold already, suddenly the narrative changed to being about a couple of 22-year olds in Kelly and Marshall trying to make those wobbly first steps towards long and fruitful careers.
And while it was the worst Lakers-Celtics matchup in the history of the rivalry in terms of the combined winning percentage of the two teams when they tipped off, the Lakers' 107-104 win ended up being as exciting of a game as the two teams have played in years.
Marshall (19 points, 14 assists) and Kelly (20 points, four rebounds) led the way for L.A. It was Marshall shaking off his reputation as a shaky shooter as he calmly hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:09 remaining to give L.A. a 105-104 lead. It was Kelly defying his lanky build to secure a rebound in traffic after Avery Bradley's potential game-winning floater was off the mark with 25 seconds left and then following that up by tracking down the rock on a nutty jump ball play on the next possession, tacking on two free throws to boot.
“Very proud of them,” Gasol said after putting up 24 points, 13 rebounds and six assists of his own, but pleased as punch to pass on the shine to players who hadn't been there, done that quite yet. “Very happy at the way they were able to step up and play well for us, because that’s what we need. They’re going to take away certain things and they’re going to be open to take certain shots, and they need to knock them down and shoot them with confidence.”
Confidence is something the pair certainly is not lacking. Despite Marshall’s “tricky” jumper, as described by coach Mike D’Antoni, the fact that he shot “about 40 times” against Phoenix (he was actually 4-for-16) as D’Antoni said, proved he believes in his own ability. Kelly is the same way. When he was asked if he ever doubted he would get the chance to prove himself in the league when he was sidelined for most of the summer with a foot injury, he shot the reporter an incredulous stare. “No,” Kelly said. “Sorry. No.”
Confidence can fuel a player, but it can also become toxic if it progresses to cockiness. Kelly and Marshall have talent, no doubt, but the last couple days proved how much they still have to learn about the league. Humility is necessary for growth. Being a know-it-all is really more of a sign of insecurity than confidence.
And so it was Marshall’s postgame comments in Boston that showed much more about him than his on-court achievements.
First, when he had the chance to gloat about that dagger 3, he doled out the credit rather than hoarding it.
“It felt good, but Wes (Johnson) made a great pass,” Marshall said. “Pau, he was drawing a double team every time when he was scoring, and we did a great job of movement and I just happened to be the beneficiary at that time.”
Then, he made sure to credit the guy who had to watch the game from his hotel room as he served a one-game ban that maybe could have been avoided if Young got some support from his teammates.
“We’d like to say that we want to have Nick with us," Marshall said, "but he kind of lit a fire under us that last game and he got us going.”
The Lakers-Celtics rivalry might seem like it's as irrelevant as it's ever been with Bryant and Nash sidelined and the C's Big Three now split between Brooklyn and Miami, but in the fourth quarter Friday none of that mattered. Neither team will be sniffing a championship this season, but that wasn't what guys like Marshall and Kelly were thinking about as L.A. erased an eight-point deficit with four minutes to go to help avoid the Lakers' 13th loss in their last 14 games. That wasn't what Celts rookie Kelly Olynyk was thinking about on his way to a career-best 25 points or what Rajon Rondo was thinking about as he beamed with pride after being named the 15th captain in team history in his first game back against the team that he won his lone ring against in 2008.
Maybe the rivalry is more in the nascent stage of a rebirth than dying a slow death. There is growth going on amongst these Lakers, at least. A season that seemed to be heading to a dead end before it even hit the halfway mark could turn into a learning experience worth tuning in to. Where there is growth, there is hope.
“It starts with little steps and we took a little step today,” said D’Antoni. “So, let’s see if we can just keep going.”