LeBron James’ Masterclass Takes Lakers to NBA Cup Brink: ‘He Played Like He Wanted’

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

Guarded by New Orleans Pelicans defensive end Herb Jones, James screened off a Horns set for D’Angelo Russell and rolled to the rim. James Jones is pinned on his backside and catches a high-low pass from Anthony Davis. He scored on an easy layup, drawing a foul for an and-1 before flexing his traps, meaning the roaring crowd.

The opening sequence was the precursor to James’ 30-point, eight-assist, five-rebound, zero-turnover masterclass — all in just 22 minutes and 32 seconds. He may have danced before the game, but that carefree nature disappeared once the ball was tipped.

The 38-year-old put on a show in the city where he hopes to one day own an NBA franchise, leading the Lakers to a 133-89 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans in the semifinals of the in-season tournament at the D on Thursday. Mobile Arena. The game marked the Lakers’ largest margin of victory since a 55-point victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2011.

“Extraordinary. foreign language One on one. He’s the ultimate tone setter,” head coach Darwin Hamm said of James’ performance.

With the win, Los Angeles improved to 14-9 and 6-0 in in-season competition with a monster point differential of plus-121 — an average 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 in his 21st season and logging the most minutes in NBA history, the consensus from both the Lakers and Pelicans is that no one wants to win this game more than him.

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“He played the way he wanted to,” Pelicans wing Trey Murphy III said. “It was rock bottom. He played like he really wanted to win these games and win this NBA trophy, so happy for him.”

James became the first player in NBA history to record at least 30 points, five rebounds and five assists in 23 minutes or less. He also played the fewest minutes a Laker has ever played while recording at least 30 points.

He skillfully cut down the Pelicans on nine of 12 shots. James led the Lakers to a team-best 36 points against the Pelicans.

Early on, he took a back seat on offense, with the aforementioned and-1 being his only three points in the first quarter. But he quickly exploded to start the second quarter, making three straight 3-pointers in a span of 61 seconds to score the Lakers’ first 11 points of the quarter.

“It’s interesting to see him shift it into another gear in these big games,” Russell said. “Honestly, he can shoot it better. He’s faster. He’s more athletic. He doesn’t get tired. I just don’t get it. But it’s interesting to watch from the outside in.

After all, 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 sent the pro-Lakers crowd into a frenzy and seemed to turn the tide of the game.

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

James’ defense was impressive, as he combined with Davis to orchestrate the Lakers’ coverage out of the backfield and picked up three charges, including one against the 6-foot-6 and 284-pound Zion Williamson.

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That effort and sacrifice did not go unnoticed by his teammates.

“Anytime your best player sacrifices his body … especially when Zion gets down in the paint, it sets a tone,” Austin Reaves said. “It shows everyone else how locked in he is to win this.”

When a reporter playfully asked if he was too old to take over the December games, James replied, “Listen, for that ($500,000), I’m not.”

The Lakers opened the second half with a 23-6 run to extend their lead to 30 points, 90-60, capped off by a one-handed alley-oop pass to Davis from James. James checked out at the 5:22 mark of the third quarter — his most shutout in a game this season.

To be clear, James had a lot of help. Davis had 16 points, 15 rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks. Reaves scored 17 points off the bench. Darian Prince had 15 points on five 3-pointers. But it was James who led the way for a second straight game for most of the postseason.

The Lakers now turn their attention to the Pacers, who have scored in consecutive games against the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks behind the MVP-caliber play of Dyers Halliburton and the league’s best.

“They’re a good ball club,” Davis said. “We were really talking about them scoring a lot of points last week. A lot of 140s and things like that, 130s. Obviously, the head of the snake is Diers, who has good role players around him who complement him very well. They’re young. They’re scrappy. They get out and run, They’re playing the right way, so it’s definitely going to be a test of our defense, but it’s going to be a great game.

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

For the Lakers, however, this is a chance to win their first NBA title and establish a baseline for success this season. Suddenly, Los Angeles has won three straight and is 7-3 in its last 10. The surging Lakers are fourth in the West — and only a half-game and 3.5 games back of No. 2 Oklahoma City. The high-profile Minnesota Timberwolves.

With the Lakers climbing in the West standings, a potential NBA Cup trophy and James’ impressive and efficient numbers, Hamm believes his team leader should be in the MVP conversation — which would make James the all-time MVP, passing Karl Malone. Winner in his age-35 season in 1999.

“Without question,” Hamm said. “Without question. The way he affects success, what he’s doing at this point in his career, without question. It doesn’t matter.”

James thought nothing of it. His focus is on sending another message against the fast bowlers.

“We got to finish Saturday breakfast,” James said, referring to the Jay-Z lyric. “It’s the most important thing.”

(Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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