L.A. Lakers Seize In-Season Title, Displaying Unmatched Championship Power

L.A. Lakers Seize In-Season Title, Displaying Unmatched Championship Power
L.A. Lakers Seize In-Season Title, Displaying Unmatched Championship Power

Behind Anthony Davis and LeBron James, the Lakers bullied their way to the NBA Cup.

If you’re going to compete in a championship game, you might as well resemble a championship-caliber team. Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers did just that in their muscular 123-109 victory over the Indiana Pacers to win the NBA In-Season Tournament on Saturday night at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. LeBron James, in his 21st season, was named the first-ever NBA In-Season Tournament MVP.

“We made history,” said LeBron, who posted 24 points and 11 rebounds. “Any time you’re on the right side of history, you take it.”

The Lakers, 12-4 over their last 16 games, went undefeated with a +135 point differential in the tourney. Beyond a $500,000 bag and the everlasting claim as inaugural victors, the run to the NBA Cup provided the Lakers a substantive opportunity to accelerate their development amid pressurized environments. Led by a laser-focused LeBron and AD, the Lakers, impressively, took advantage.

“The high-intensity games, we’ve just grown,” LeBron said about the Lakers’ evolution since their IST began on Nov. 10. “I feel like guys have felt a lot more comfortable in their roles. We’ve had a pretty good understanding of rotations, knowing who you’re going to be playing with, knowing what you guys want to do out on the floor.”

Darvin Ham should take LeBron’s observation as a compliment. His staff has pressed the right buttons with Austin Reaves (as a supersub) and Cam Reddish (as a starting stopper) while successfully re-incorporating Jarred Vanderbilt and Rui Hachimura and finding burn for Max Christie.

Amidst the postgame glee, LeBron stressed “that it’s still December,” although he likes where the Lakers “are right now.” His positivity — minutes after a trophy presentation with Adam Silver and champagne celebration — represents a stark contrast from his downtrodden “a lot needs to change” comments in a very-non-champagne-soaked locker room on Nov. 20. The Lakers are 5-1 since that drubbing in Philly.

Throughout the Knockout Round, the Lakers showcased the elements of their postseason potential. They relied on their crunchtime chops to edge out the Phoenix Suns in the quarters. Against the New Orleans Pelicans, LeBron put on a show like only he can. In the championship, the Lakers played their ideal brand of basketball: downhill, bruising, and defense-first.

The most realized version of that identity — the version that can win NBA Finals games — has to germinate from Davis. In 41 minutes, AD bulldozed the Pacers on his way to 41 points, 20 rebounds, five assists, and four blocks. Despite limping through groin pain, he played all but two minutes of the second half.

“I feel like when we’re on the floor together, we’re healthy, we know what we’re capable of doing,” said LeBron. “We’ve just played too many games together, we’ve shared too many moments together, played in too many big moments together to fail each other.”

AD’s attitude was more noteworthy than the eye-popping box score. AD was out for blood; flexing, howling, attacking. It was as tenacious, rugged, and overtly fired up as he gets.

LeBron was limited by foul trouble but produced enough highlights to satisfy the masses and earn another trophy etched with the words “Most Valuable Player”. The nearly 39-year-old averaged 26.4 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 7.0 assists in the tournament while shooting 56.8% from the field and 60.6% from long range. (LeBron will watch his son play college basketball on Sunday. “Helluva weekend.”)

On Thursday, LeBron’s two-way energy and charge-taking inspired his teammates. On Saturday, Davis’ intensity was contagious. The Lakers’ elite halfcourt defense suffocated the league’s most prolific offense. Los Angeles held Indiana to 36.8% shooting and 19 points below their season average.

In general, the discrepancy in physicality defined the game. The Lakers finished with 86 points in the paint, 35 free throw attempts, and 23 more rebounds. They scored all but 10 of their points in the paint or at the line (2-for-13 from 3). That’s big-boy basketball.

“Anytime I step on the floor, I know I’m the anchor of the defense,” said Davis. “Giving guys the freedom to press up and get some ball pressure. And if they get beat, I’m there at the rim … That’s my job.

“Overall, we’ve been locked in defensively.”

Reddish (team-high +24) teamed with Vanderbilt to keep Tyrese Haliburton in check and wreak havoc with length and caginess. Davis described the Lakers’ energy and focus as “off the charts.”

“Regardless of Cam’s points, rebounds, assists, I thought he was one of the best players on the floor tonight with the way that he pressured, deaded their outlets, slowed their pace down,” said Austin Reaves. “Just as a unit, everybody seemed to be locked-in on the task at hand.”

Reaves overcame a pregame illness to drop 20 points in the first half on his way to 28. He (shrewdly) rejected the “third guy” label, but the Lakers’ title hopes are largely contingent on Reaves reliably starring in the biggest games. So far, he’s been up to the task.

“Man, Austin — I don’t think he gets enough credit for how competitive he is,” said Ham. “He’s a highly, highly elite, intelligent, basketball thinker and worker. It shows once we get in these moments when we need him. As I mentioned, with Bron and AD, Austin is always one of those guys that can carry the group.”

“Who had the better flu game: AR or MJ?! It’s up for debate!’ LeBron could be heard shouting.

Here’s what’s not up for debate: The Lakers, as currently constructed, are as well-equipped for high-stakes basketball as any team in the NBA. They have the moxie, the day-to-day seriousness, the trust in their best players, and the two-way depth. Now, they also have the experience of setting a goal and achieving something tangible, together.

Haters can downplay the accomplishment. But, last I checked, there has been one tournament featuring NBA teams this season. The Lakers came, saw, and conquered.

“This is special for us, winning the Inaguuaral In-Season Tournament,” said AD. “But we want to also win the same thing in June. It’s a step in the right direction.”

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