Home » LeBron James’ masterclass leads Lakers to brink of NBA Cup: ‘He played like he wanted it’

LeBron James’ masterclass leads Lakers to brink of NBA Cup: ‘He played like he wanted it’

LAS VEGAS — Within the opening seconds of the In-Season Tournament semifinals, LeBron James sent a clear message: He wasn’t going to let the Lakers lose.

James, defended by New Orleans Pelicans defensive ace Herb Jones, screened for D’Angelo Russell out of a horns set and rolled to the rim. James pinned Jones on his backside and caught a high-low pass from Anthony Davis. He scored on an easy layup, drawing the foul for an and-1, before flexing his traps as he mean-mugged the roaring crowd.

The opening sequence was a harbinger of James’ 30-point, eight-assist, five-rebound, zero-turnover masterclass — all in just 22 minutes and 32 seconds. He might have been dancing before the game, but that carefree nature disappeared as soon as the ball was tipped.

The 38-year-old put on a show in the city where he hopes to own an NBA franchise one day, spearheading the Lakers’ 133-89 win Thursday over the New Orleans Pelicans in the semifinals of the In-Season Tournament at T-Mobile Arena. The game marked the Lakers’ largest margin of victory since a 55-point win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2011.

“Extraordinary. Otherworldly. One-of-one. He is the ultimate tone-setter,” head coach Darvin Ham said of James’ performance.

With the win, Los Angeles improved to 14-9 and 6-0 in the In-Season Tournament with a monster point differential of plus-121 — an average margin of victory of 20.2 points per game. They will play the Indiana Pacers, who beat the Milwaukee Bucks 128-119 earlier Thursday, in the championship game on Saturday evening.

Despite James being the oldest player on the floor and in his 21st season, with the most minutes logged in NBA history, the consensus opinion from both the Lakers and Pelicans afterward was that no one wanted to win this game more than him.

“He played like he wanted it,” Pelicans wing Trey Murphy III said. “That was the bottom line. He played like he really wanted to win these games and win this NBA Cup, so hat’s off to him.”

James became the first player in NBA history to record at least 30 points, five rebounds and five assists in 23 minutes or fewer. He also played the fewest number of minutes any Laker has played while logging at least 30 points.

He sliced the Pelicans with efficiency, making nine of 12 shots. The Lakers outscored the Pelicans by 36 points with James on the floor, a team-best mark.

Initially, he took a back seat within the offense, with the aforementioned and-1 his only three points of the first quarter. But he quickly erupted to start the second quarter, making three straight 3-pointers within 61 seconds and scoring the Lakers’ first 11 points of the quarter.

“It’s impressive to watch him just turn it to another gear in these big games,” Russell said. “Honestly, he can shoot it better. He’s faster. He’s more athletic. He’s not getting tired. I just don’t understand. But it’s impressive to watch from the outside looking in.”

All told, James scored a season-high 18 points in the quarter, helping the Lakers turn a one-point first-quarter deficit into a 13-point halftime lead. The flurry got the pro-Lakers crowd buzzing and seemed to flip the direction of the game.

“You saw LeBron on full display,” Pelicans head coach Willie Green said. “He understands these moments.”

James’ defense was arguably more impressive, as he orchestrated the Lakers’ coverages from the backline alongside Davis and ended up taking three charges, including one against Zion Williamson, who’s 6-foot-6 and 284 pounds.

That effort and sacrifice didn’t go unnoticed by his teammates.

“Any time your best player sacrifices his body … especially with Zion coming down the paint, it sets a tone,” Austin Reaves said. “That shows to everybody else how locked in he is to win this.”

When playfully asked by a reporter whether he’s too old to be taking charges in December games, James replied, “Listen, not for that ($500,000), I ain’t.”

The Lakers opened up the second half with a 23-6 run to extend their lead to 30 points, 90-60, punctuated by James’ one-handed alley-oop pass to Davis out of early offense. James checked out at the 5:22 mark of the third quarter — the earliest he’s exited a game this season.

To be clear, James had plenty of help. Davis had 16 points, 15 rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks. Reaves scored 17 points off the bench. Taurean Prince had 15 points on five 3-pointers. But it was James who led the way for the second straight game, as he has for much of the In-Season Tournament.

The Lakers now turn their attention to the scorching Pacers, who beat the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks in consecutive games behind the MVP-caliber play of Tyrese Haliburton and the league’s best offense.

“They are a good ball club,” Davis said. “We were actually talking about maybe last week that they score a lot of points. A lot of 140s and things like that, 130s. Obviously, the head of the snake is Tyrese, with good role players around him who complement him very well. They are young. They are scrappy. They get out and run, and they play the right way. So it’s going to be a test for our defense, for sure. But it’s going to be an exciting game.”

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Saturday’s game won’t count toward the standings or for statistics — Los Angeles and Indiana will technically play an 83rd regular season, one more than the other 28 teams. Players from the winning team will each receive a $500,000 prize, while those on the losing team will earn $200,000 per player.

For the Lakers, though, it’s an opportunity to win the first NBA Cup and establish a baseline standard of success for this season. All of a sudden, Los Angeles has won three consecutive games and are 7-3 in their last 10. The surging Lakers are fourth in the West — and only a half-game back from No. 2 Oklahoma City and just 3.5 games back from the top-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves.

With the Lakers climbing the West standings, a potential NBA Cup trophy on the horizon and James’ impressive and efficient numbers, Ham believes his group’s leader should be in the MVP conversation — an accomplishment that would make James the oldest MVP ever, eclipsing Karl Malone, who won in his age-35 season in 1999.

“Without question,” Ham said. “Without question. The way he impacts winning, what he’s doing at this stage of his career, without question. That’s a no-brainer.”

James isn’t thinking about any of that, though. His focus is on sending another message against the Pacers.

“We’ve got to finish our breakfast on Saturday,” James said, referencing a Jay-Z lyric. “That’s the most important thing.”


(Photo: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)