LOS ANGELES — With a playoff berth in hand, Isaiah Thomas and the Boston Celtics are seeking higher ground in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
“We want to finish the best possible way we can, and that seed is the third seed,” Thomas said. “So, hopefully we can keep it and go into the playoffs with some momentum.”
Thomas scored 21 of his 26 points in the first half and Jae Crowder added 22 more, leading the Celtics to a 107-100 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on Sunday night.
Boston (45-32) clinched a playoff berth with the win.
Evan Turner contributed 17 points for the Celtics, who tied the Atlanta Hawks for the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Boston and Atlanta are only a half-game ahead of the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat.
“That’s what you want, obviously, to give yourself a chance, and the only way you get a chance is to make the playoffs,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “It’s been a very focused group and I haven’t heard the guys talk about (the playoffs) a ton. Obviously, when asked about it, they may comment on it, but they’ve been pretty focused on just the task at hand.”
Boston’s Amir Johnson had 10 points and 13 rebounds. Celtics guard Avery Bradley was allowed to miss the game for personal reasons.
Kobe Bryant scored 34 points on 11-of-28 shooting, hitting four 3-pointers, to pace the Lakers (16-60), who have dropped five of their last six contests. Julius Randle contributed 20 points and 10 rebounds, while Jordan Clarkson had 17 points.
“He looked like the old Kobe,” Thomas said. “From the jump, from the first play, he just had a different energy about him. We knew it was probably going to be a long night.”
Bryant said the rivalry and some of the Celtics fueled him.
“There was a little trash talking among the young. Hearing that got the juices flowing,” said Bryant, who faced Boston for the final time in his career.
After Lakers forward Ryan Kelly converted a jumper to knot the score at 77 apiece to open the fourth quarter, the Celtics went on a 16-5 tear for a 93-82 lead, capped by a 3-pointer by Turner midway through the period.
The Lakers cut the gap to 99-93 on a fadeaway by Bryant with 2:26 left in the contest. Boston pushed the lead back to double digits before a Bryant bucket in the lane and a three-point play by Randle sliced the margin to 104-100 with 27.9 seconds remaining.
However, a foul shot by Turner and two more by Crowder sealed it for Boston, which has won six of its last eight.
“Isaiah, the great player that he is, made a couple of key shots getting to the basket. The same thing with Crowder, he made a couple of key shots as well,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said. “That was it, they just made more shots at the end basically. We got some good looks, but their looks were better.”
Bryant’s 3-pointer gave the Lakers their first lead at 66-65 at 6:30 of the third. Russell’s bucket made it a three-point advantage, but the Celtics went up 77-75 heading into the final quarter.
Thomas scored 13 points in the second quarter as Boston built a 57-48 edge at the half. Boston shot 46.7 percent to 41.9 percent for Los Angeles in the first half. For the game, the Celtics made 45.1 percent of their shots to 41.1 percent for the Lakers.
NOTES: After Boston’s stunning win over the Golden State Warriors on Friday, a result that snapped the defending champions’ 54-game home winning streak, Celtics coach Brad Stevens didn’t believe his club would suffer from overconfidence against the lowly Lakers. “We have to play well to win,” Stevens said before Sunday game. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, it doesn’t matter where we’re playing. We were fortunate to win that game (Friday). And L.A. beat us last time, and L.A. outplayed us last time.” The Lakers defeated the Celtics 112-104 on Dec. 30 in Boston. … Boston now leads the all-time series 156-128. … Lakers G Nick Young was put on the inactive list for the game. Laker coach Byron Scott also decided not to play G Lou Williams, F Brandon Bass and F Metta World Peace to give extended minutes to the younger players. … The Lakers will be the visiting team Tuesday when they play the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center. The Celtics host the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday.