LAS VEGAS (AP) — LeBron James scored 30 points in less than three quarters and the Los Angeles Lakers steamrolled the New Orleans Pelicans 133-89 on Thursday night to reach the championship game in the NBA In-Season Tournament.
The Lakers will play the surprising Indiana Pacers on Saturday night for the inaugural NBA Cup. Indiana advanced with a 128-119 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in the other semifinal. Unlike the other tournament games, the championship game will not count in the regular-season standings.
Los Angeles’ run to the title game, James said, is indicative of the team’s potential. He was particularly pleased with the defense, which held New Orleans to 35.8% shooting, and the Lakers also had a 59-42 rebounding advantage.
“I think we are starting to get a feel for what we need to become a team for us to win basketball games, to be consistent,” James said. “Defensively, we’re really, really starting to tap into that like, OK, we’ve got to defend every single night. When we defend, we give ourselves a chance to win every night.”
Austin Reaves scored 17 points for Los Angeles, Anthony Davis had 16 points and 15 rebounds and Taurean Prince finished with 15 points.
Trey Murphy III led the Pelicans with 14 points. Zion Williamson had 13 points and Herbert Jones 10.
Pelicans coach Willie Green said he credited his team in the locker room with making the semifinals, “but tonight was a total letdown. We’re all disappointed in our competitive spirit against the Lakers. You’ve got to give them credit. They came out and dominated. … But tonight we took a step in the wrong direction.”
New Orleans led 30-29 after the first quarter, but James opened the second scoring the Lakers’ first 11 points, and suddenly a one-point deficit was a 40-33 lead.
During that stretch, James made three 3-pointers in a row. The last two came from the league and tournament logo, firing up the pro-Lakers crowd. The nearly 39-year-old superstar even took three charges.
“Any time your best player sacrifices his body, takes three charges in the first half, especially with Zion coming down the paint, it sets a tone,” Reaves said. “That shows to everybody else how locked in he is to win this, and how locked in he is every game.”
By halftime, James had 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting. He went to the bench midway through the third quarter, which should give him plenty of energy for the championship against a Pacers team like that likes to push, well, pace.
“They are young,” Davis said. “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.”
Los Angeles have won three consecutive games and four of their past five. Coach Darvin Ham said the focus, aggressiveness and unselfishness during this recent span make the Lakers “damn near unstoppable.”
“It’s a beautiful thing to see this early,” Ham said. “I think the intensity that this tournament brings reveals that because it’s not just a regular-season game. It doesn’t feel like that. The stakes are way higher and you see people in those delicate moments what they are truly made of, at least the beginning stages.”
Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) drives past Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner. (AP Photo/Ian Maule).
Over in Las Vegas: Tyrese Haliburton hit his third 3-pointer with less than a minute left, pounded his chest, and looked down at his wrist to let everyone know one thing: “It’s our time!”
Haliburton had 27 points and 15 assists in Indiana Pacers’ victory against Milwaukee Bucks in the first semifinal.
“We’re playing the right way and we’re shocking the world right now, we’re going to continue to do that,” Haliburton said. “And as long as we play the right way, we know we’re going to be in every basketball game.”
Myles Turner added 26 points for Indiana. Obi Toppin had 14 on 6-of-8 shooting, Isaiah Jackson chipped in 11 and Bruce Brown had 10.
Indiana are averaging a whopping 132.6 points during the tournament. Overall, they are averaging 128.3 this season — 131.7 over the last 14 games.
Giannis Antetokounmpo had 37 points and 10 rebounds for Milwaukee. Damian Lillard added 24 points, Khris Middleton had 20 and Brook Lopez 18.