LAS VEGAS — The NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament has provided an ideal platform for LeBron James — weeks shy of his 39th birthday — to prove that he’s still in his prime.
James poured in 30 points and added eight assists and five rebounds Thursday to earn the Lakers a date with the Indiana Pacers, who beat the Milwaukee Bucks earlier in the day, in Saturday’s championship game.
The Lakers star, in his 21st season, has been so good for so long that performances like he had against the Pelicans when he made 9-of-12 shots (including 4-for-4 from 3), committed zero turnovers and registered a plus-minus of plus-36 in the 23 minutes he played, sometimes seem ordinary for him.
However, taking a moment to consider that James is closer in age to Shaquille O’Neal, who’s been retired since 2011 and was sitting courtside for the tourney, than his teammate Austin Reaves and the things he continues to do on the basketball court seem even more incomprehensible.
Like in the span of 61 seconds in the second quarter, when James hit three 3-pointers – the last qualifying as a heat check as he launched it from 30 feet out with the crowd anticipating his shot as soon as he touched the ball past half court – to start to put L.A. in control.
It was reminiscent of James’ first meeting with Zion Williamson in 2020, when James scored 11 straight points in the third quarter – including going 3-for-3 from 3 – to break the game open and assert his dominance over the then rookie sensation.
James’ outside flurry, as notable as it was, might have been overshadowed by his defensive effort.
He lined up to take a charge on the 23-year-old Williamson barreling through the lane in the first quarter, then drew two more in the second quarter – putting his body, that’s already logged the most minutes in the history of the league, on the line.
All told, he had 18 points in the second, helping L.A. build a 67-54 advantage at the half.
The floodgates were open by the third, with the Lakers starting the second half on a 22-6 run – punctuated by James alley-oop pass to Anthony Davis to bring L.A.’s lead up to 90-60. Heading into the fourth, after a 43-17 drubbing, the Lakers led 110-71.
While James led the way, the Lakers were sharp in almost every aspect of the game. L.A. shot 15-for-29 from 3 (51.7%); it outrebounded the Pelicans 40-31; and it protected the ball all night, only coughing up eight team turnovers.
Four other Lakers scored in double digits, led by Davis’ 16 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocks.
After starting the season 3-5, L.A. is rolling heading into Saturday’s championship game with the first-ever NBA Cup and a per-player $500,000 cash prize on the line. The Lakers have won three games in a row and are 7-3 in their last 10, moving up to No. 4 in the Western Conference standings.
“This time of the year you tend to – you don’t want to admit it – but teams tend to sleepwalk through some of these games,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said before the game. “So for the league to infuse this tournament at this point and time of the year, I thought it was brilliant. … Now being here in Vegas, it’s definitely a really thick electricity that’s happening that’s reverberating all the way through the arena, through the teams. Everybody is excited to try to give it their best shot.”
And now the James and the Lakers have a shot at another championship Saturday.