LAS VEGAS — The NBA Cup may be new, but the lesson it taught was as old as the league itself. To win anything of value, and the in-season tournament seems to have quickly established itself as such an event, you’re going to need superstars.
In a way, that future Hall of Famers and champions LeBron James and Anthony Davis‘ brilliant play proved to be the deciding factor in the Los Angeles Lakers‘ 123-109 victory over the Indiana Pacers to claim the first-ever edition of the event verified its consequence.
Playing on a neutral floor in December in a single game, it was hard to truly compare Saturday night it to any sort of playoff setting. But one thing was for certain, it was treated like an elimination game. There were aggressive game plans, heavy minutes and intensity. Situations where James has thrived for a long time.
James is unquestionably one of the NBA’s greatest winner-take-all game players in history. He’s won nine of them in a row now going back more than a decade. This isn’t an accident, he’s averaged 33 points a game in those moments, that figure slightly dragged down by only scoring 24 points with 11 rebounds Saturday to finish off a tournament run that clinched him the first-ever in-season tournament MVP Award. (As an aside, that factoid might pave the way for that trophy being named after him someday.)
These games are not all created equal, of course. Comparing Game 7 of an NBA Finals, which James has won twice, isn’t the same as winning a game in the play-in tournament or the three games this week.
James, though, has won the last five Game 7s he’s played with two of them coming on the road, one of the rarest feats to execute. The last time James lost a Game 7 was 2008, when his Cleveland Cavaliers went down narrowly after he scored 45 points in a game in Boston against the eventual champion Celtics.
This is why teams scheme, tamper, tank and even pray to get their hands on a superstar like Davis, whose mega 41-point, 20-rebound game broke the undersized Pacers’ backs. It’s only been the Lakers’ game plan to group stars together for 50-some years and will be for the foreseeable future.
“We’ve been doing it together for a long time, five years now, and we just figure it out,” Davis said. “We know each other’s tendencies. …. We feed off one another. Thursday, LeBron had it going [scoring 30 points in just 23 minutes in a blowout over the New Orleans Pelicans].
“Tonight, it was me, and he still did his thing.”
The Lakers having two superstars is why, regardless of what their shortcomings might be from season to season, that they remain such a threat. James has been on better teams — the Lakers won despite making just two 3-pointers because their shooting remains a problem — but all his trophies have come when he’s got at least one Hall of Famer at his side.
“We’ve played too many games together, shared too many moments together, played in too many big moments together to fail each other,” James said of Davis. “It’s been everything, especially at the later stage of my career.”
They have failed, of course. Missing the playoffs two years ago, injuries notwithstanding, was a disaster. But reaching the conference finals last season when they had to first win in the play-in tournament to get in was a reminder of the reliance of star players in an elimination setting. As was Saturday night. The Lakers have been up-and-down early in the season, partially due to injuries to role players, but this week was a call back to last spring.
Austin Reaves scored 28 points off the bench, one of his best performances of the season. The length of Laker defenders Cam Reddish and Jarred Vanderbilt could be a factor later on this season. The Lakers also had a smart game plan, smothering Tyrese Haliburton with double teams and attacking the Pacers’ weakness in defending the paint by relentlessly hunting shots there and making 43 baskets in the lane.
Haliburton might be on the other side of the superstar equation one day, but not today. He was stymied by facing 26 double teams, stripping his ability to play with the downhill aggression that opens up his game and the Pacers’ fearsome offense.
The Pacers’ run in this tournament felt a little like the Phoenix Suns perfect 8-0 stretch in the 2020 Orlando bubble. It signaled the Suns were entering a new era and a year later they were in the Finals.
Let’s not get ahead of anything with the Pacers, but it has felt like they’ve entered a new phase. But these are all details that fall in line behind the truth, which is that when James and Davis are healthy and engaged, the NBA’s superstar principle applies, no matter that Saturday’s win doesn’t count in the official regular season standings.
“A hell of a one-two punch, and that one or two could be either one of them on any given night,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “At the end of the day, they know how to take it to that next level when everything is on the line.”