The Boston Celtics came up just short at Staples Center Sunday afternoon, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers 114-112. It was an impressive effort, even in defeat, providing more evidence to suggest the Celtics might have to be taken seriously as a potential threat to win the title.

Boston is looked upon as a fringe championship contender. They are a tier below the best teams in basketball but too good to be considered a long shot.

The Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers are the clear 2020 NBA Finals favorites with no worse than 3/1 odds, per the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. The Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets are both given 16/1 title odds, followed by the Celtics at 20/1.

The defending champion Toronto Raptors (25/1) are behind Boston, as are the Philadelphia 76ers (30/1) and Miami Heat (30/1).

Many of the numbers suggest that the Celtics have a real chance to win the championship.

The Celtics have the NBA’s fourth-best record (39-17) and point differential (plus-6.7), putting them ahead of the Clippers, Rockets and Nuggets. Boston has the No.3 defensive rating (105.8) and No.5 offensive rating (112.5). The Bucks and Lakers are the only other teams that rank in the top five in both categories.

Star power separates the Celtics from the top contenders. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo is about to win his second straight NBA MVP award with the Bucks. LeBron James and Anthony Davis give the Lakers two top-five MVP candidates. The Clippers have the reigning NBA Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard and a top-10 player when healthy in Paul George.

James Harden has Houston near the NBA Finals conversation. Nikola Jokic has led Denver to the No.2 seed in the West a year after finishing fourth in the 2019 MVP race.

No current player on the Celtics roster has ever been an MVP candidate. Winning the title without a top-10 player has proven to be almost impossible throughout NBA history.

Jayson Tatum is giving Boston hope that he could fill that role for the Celtics as the regular season heads towards the home stretch.

Tatum is averaging 29.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game in nine February contests. He’s shooting 48.3% from the field and making 46.8% of the 8.8 threes he attempts on a nightly basis.

Tatum was the best player on the floor against the Lakers, scoring 41 points on 20 shots. It was also the case when the Celtics beat the Clippers in double overtime just before the All-Star break. Tatum had 39 points and nine rebounds in a 141-133 home victory over L.A.

This ascent by Tatum hasn’t exactly come out of nowhere. The No.3 overall pick in the 2017 draft was Boston’s best postseason performer as a rookie when the Celtics were a victory away from reaching the 2018 NBA Finals.

Tatum is averaging 22.9 points. 7.0 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game this season. He’s fifth overall in ESPN’s real plus-minus, which regards Tatum has the NBA’s third-best defensive player.

Tatum was a reserve in the All-Star Game. Kemba Walker was voted in as a starter. Jaylen Brown was a borderline All-Star. Gordon Hayward has looked like an All-Star for much of the season.

If Boston’s core is healthy in the playoffs and Tatum is performing at this level, the Celtics could very well still be playing in June.

Jayson Tatum Jayson Tatum #0 of the U.S. Team warms up at the 2019 Mtn Dew ICE Rising Stars at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, Feb. 15, 2019. Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images