LeBron James, the ultimate ‘Swiss Army knife’, carries Lakers to West’s No. 8 seed

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LeBron James, the ultimate ‘Swiss Army knife’, carries Lakers to West’s No. 8 seed

NEW ORLEANS — Austin Reaves looked up at the in-arena box score jumbotron and did a double take.

At the seven-minute mark of the second quarter, LeBron James already had 11 assists.

“What the hell is going on?” Reaves thought to himself when he saw the number. “They might have a typo up there.”

Except it wasn’t an error — James had eight assists in the first seven minutes of the game and a career-high 13 assists in the first half. Behind James’ fifth triple-double of the season — 28 points, 11 rebounds and a season-high 17 assists while adding five steals — the Lakers beat the New Orleans Pelicans in their regular-season finale to secure the No. 8 seed in the Play-In Tournament and finish the season 47-35.

Los Angeles will remain in New Orleans for a rematch with the Pelicans for the No. 7 seed on Tuesday. The winner will play the defending champion No. 2 Denver Nuggets. The loser will host the winner of the game between the No. 9 Sacramento Kings and No. 10 Golden State Warriors, with the winner of that game facing the No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder.

It was a good test for us,” James said of the win. “A good regular season for us, even throughout everything that’s gone on throughout this whole season. For us to end the season 12 games over .500 — 13 if you count the championship in the In-Season Tournament — I mean, with everything we’ve been through, that’s a pretty good season for us.”

The signs of a locked-in Lakers squad were present in the locker room before the game. There was little interaction between players. Everyone was either listening to their music with headphones on, watching film on laptops or iPads or vibing to the old-school Lil Wayne playlist blaring through the speakers.

Head coach Darvin Ham said he noticed a renewed sense of focus on Saturday when the team gathered to rewatch the film of their 123-120 win over a Memphis Grizzlies team that was missing 13 roster players. The group was disappointed with their effort, including numerous careless turnovers and halfhearted defensive rotations. They felt a sense of urgency Tuesday with seeding on the line.

“We wanted to come out early and set a tone defensively,” Ham said of the team’s mindset coming off the Grizzlies nailbiter. “And also set a tone offensively by not settling.”

James applied the pregame messaging early. He relentlessly pushed the ball, hunting mismatches and openings out of pick-and-rolls while surgically dissecting the Pelicans’ sixth-ranked defense. Lasers, lobs, touch passes, bounce passes — James’ full passing arsenal was on display. Each member of New Orleans’ army of wing defenders was too small and slender to handle James’ force, physicality and savvy.

He helped spark noteworthy performances from Anthony Davis (30 points on 13-for-17 shooting, 11 rebounds), Reaves (20 points), D’Angelo Russell (19 points, five 3s) and Rui Hachimura (11 points, 7 rebounds), as the Lakers leaned more into their starting five with the playoffs potentially less than a week away.

“I just read the game and I was just finding my teammates and I just tried to put the ball on time and on target for either jump shots or guys at the rim,” James said. “I just tried to be very efficient with my play.”

On defense, James took on the challenge of defending Zion Williamson, who had been playing some of the best basketball of his career entering the game. James helped hold Williamson to 12 points on 4-for-13 shooting, absorbing Williamson’s blows on drives and funneling him to Davis. James also dared Williamson to shoot from the perimeter, goading him into a 3-pointer and a few jumpers.

James’ defensive effort has understandably waned during his 21st season. He’s logged more minutes than any player in NBA history, is still nursing an ankle injury and is carrying a significant offensive workload. Still, he said after the game that he’s committed to ramping up his defensive responsibilities if that’s what a matchup requires — a notable development considering the Lakers are still without frontcourt defensive ace Jarred Vanderbilt, who remains out with an injured foot with no timetable to return.

“I just want to win, so whatever the game presents itself for me to be, if it needs me to be more attacking and scoring range, or if it needs me to be more of a set-up guy, if it needs me to be more of a defender, I got to do it all,” James said. “I am a Swiss Army knife, so I got to do it all on the floor and none of it’s predetermined.”

James’ appearance marked his 71st game this season — the most regular-season games he’s played as a Laker, and the most he’s played in a season since the 2017-18 campaign in Cleveland. The 39-year-old superstar said he’s feeling “better than I did at the end of the season last year going into the postseason,” which has both he and the Lakers feeling confident in their chances to go on another deep playoff run.

“I’m still dealing with (my ankle), whatever the case may be, some small things here, small things there,” James said. “But I took a lot of pride in the offseason just trying to get my ankle, get my foot right back in order, get my body back in order. And it’s definitely paid off for me throughout the regular season. … At this point of my career to be able to play 70-plus games, be available for my guys, I think only a few of them were because of injury or illness. So, that’s pretty cool.”

The game was not without some drama late, with Davis exiting at the 5:22 mark of the fourth quarter due to back spasms after absorbing a blow from Larry Nance Jr. on a putback attempt. Davis couldn’t run back on defense and gingerly walked to the scorer’s table. He eventually crouched down and had the Lakers’ training staff stretch out his right leg.

Davis said he suffered a “hyperextension” and his “back just locked up.” For a moment, the Lakers’ future appeared in jeopardy. The Lakers are just 2-4 without Davis this season — and 2-6 when counting two recent losses to the Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves in which he left the game after the first quarter.

But Davis quickly put to rest any concern surrounding his availability for Tuesday.

“No doubt that I’m going to play,” Davis said.

He added he’ll likely wear heating pads underneath his jersey to keep his back warm and loose against New Orleans.

Davis played in a career-high 76 games this season. When he checked out, the Lakers were up by 21 points. He said he’d have been able to play through the injury if the game were still undecided. However, he made it clear he wasn’t happy with Nance’s actions. It was the third time Davis has taken a shot from an opposing player over the past month that didn’t result in a foul, but caused him to leave a game.

“I was in the air,” Davis said. “Obviously, it’s a dangerous play. I know he’s not a dirty player.”

There were several ways Sunday could’ve played out for the Lakers. A Phoenix Suns loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves would have resulted in Los Angeles traveling to Phoenix instead of staying in New Orleans. A Lakers loss would have relegated them to the No. 10 seed, given the Kings and Warriors were near-locks to beat the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz, respectively.

Instead, LA will face New Orleans again. The Lakers won the season series 3-1 against the Pelicans, with the three victories by 44, 20 and 16 points. Los Angeles appears to have New Orleans’ number, with the Pelicans unable to slow either James or Davis. The Lakers also won both must-win scenarios in the matchups so far: the In-Season Tournament semifinals in Las Vegas on Dec. 7 (by 44 points) and yesterday’s regular-season finale when both teams had stakes on the line.

Nonetheless, the Lakers understand how difficult it is to win consecutive road games against the same team. They experienced that difficulty last postseason when they won both Game 1s against Memphis and Golden State, but then lost both Game 2s.

“Tuesday’s game is going to be extremely hard, extremely difficult, extremely physical,” James said. “I’ve always known that, when you play a playoff series — and I look at this like a two-game playoff series — if you win that first game, a team has multiple days to kind of sit on that feeling, or sit with that taste in their mouth of defeat. So they’re going to be extremely ready for us and we have to come in with the same sense of urgency that we had the previous game.”

The Pelicans will certainly make their own adjustments, like finding ways to get Williamson going downhill, better acclimating Brandon Ingram (who returned after missing three weeks with a knee injury), more minutes for Jonas Valančiūnas when Davis is off the floor and different coverages to try to slow down James.

But the Lakers will, too. Davis noted that the Lakers’ second-half defense could’ve been better, especially in the third quarter. The coaching staff reconvened at the team’s hotel to rewatch the game on Sunday night and will present the modified game plan with adjustments to the players on Monday.

“Just lean into what we did well,” Ham said. “Understanding that they may make adjustments in terms of their matchups. And just have a plan, a backup plan and an escape plan once we see what their response is to what we’ve done tonight.

“And so, the chess game has been ignited. And we’re all for it.”

(Top photo: Tyler Kaufman / Getty Images)