Lakers make history winning NBA In-Season Tournament

Candace Ward-USA Today Sports
The Lakers got big performances from Anthony Davis and LeBron James to defeat Indiana, 123-109. to win the NBA Cup in Las Vegas.

LAS VEGAS — LeBron James couldn’t do it all by himself. Especially when he found himself in early foul trouble.

Fortunately for the Los Angeles Lakers, he didn’t need to.

James’ sidekick Anthony Davis stayed on the brightly colored T-Mobile Arena court long enough to do severe damage to the Indiana Pacers.

Davis’ dominating performance in the NBA’s inaugural In-season Tournament championship game was enough to get the Lakers across the finish line as 123-109 winners Saturday to claim the NBA Cup along with each player receiving $500,000 apiece. He scored 41 points, grabbed 20 rebounds, blocked four shots in 41 minutes.

“We feed off one another,” Davis said. “It wasn’t just us two. It was the whole team.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham said he hopes his team can build on its early December success into something much bigger.

“It’s a huge shot in the arm, especially for our group,” he said. “Playing in some highly, highly intense games, it was a playoff-NCAA Tournament atmosphere, it was great.

“We talked about being the first, being on the right side of history. To have individual success roll into team success. For us to be locked in and focused, both of those guys (James and Davis) set that tone. This is a great source of positive stimuli, guys coming together and have their competitive spirit revealed is a huge for us.” 

The Pacers had made such a positive impression en route to the tournament’s finale. They were averaging over 125 points and Tyrese Haliburton was gaining in popularity with fans outside of Indianapolis and the rest of the Hoosier State.

They had been down by as many as 11 in the third quarter and had pulled within three early in the fourth. But then Davis dialed his game a notch higher while James, who had been limited to just 13 minutes in the first half after picking up three personal fouls, accelerated his performance.  With just under three minutes to play, Los Angeles had built a secure 16-point cushion (115-99) and the league office’s accountants were getting the list of names to direct deposit that half a million bucks to each of the players.

“Where we are in December, we’ll take it,” said James, who finished with 24 points and 11 rebounds Saturday and was selected as the IST’s Most Valuable Player. “There’s still too many steps to take for us to be the team we want to be.” 

Austin Reaves, who had a big game off the bench for the Lakers with 28 points, was asked if he felt a need to earn his half a million bucks with his big night.

“Yeah, I guess,” he said with a chuckle. “I just try to play the game the right way.” 

When asked what he’s going to do with his winner’s share, he said, “I don’t know. Maybe buy a golf club membership.”

It was yet another crowning achievement for the Lakers franchise, which has 17 NBA titles to their credit. And for the majority of the sellout crowd of 19,021 which were rooting for them, it was cause for celebration.

James, who has basketball gold medals from two Olympics, was asked if his NBA Cup medal was comparable in weight to his Olympic medals.

“It’s heavier,” he said.

When the NBA announced it was going to play an in-season tournament, I was initially lukewarm about it. It sounded too gimmicky for me to embrace. 

When it was announced the semifinals and championship game were going to be played in Las Vegas, my interest level increased. 

And after watching some of the games, most of which were high scoring, somewhat reminiscent of the old ABA and played on splashy color-filled courts that invoked memories of the movie “The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh,” I said, “Damn, how is (NBA commissioner) Adam Silver so freakin’ smart?”
Normally, interest in the NBA doesn’t really kick in until Christmas Day. I’m as guilty as anyone. Yeah, I’ll check the standings occasionally and perhaps watch a few minutes here and there in November and early December. But how can you not want to watch when the teams are averaging 125 points and guys are actually trying? I mean Kevin Durant was naturally bummed he missed a last-second shot Monday that would have sent the Suns to overtime against the Lakers. And trust me, Durant is not motivated by money. This is about pride. No load management issues here.

I’m here to tell you this worked.

The NBA was looking to get some pre-Christmas traction and get teams, players and fans interested while the NFL dominated week after week. And it didn’t hurt having LeBron and the Lakers in the “Final Four” and the championship game Saturday.

The winners got some cool-looking Olympic-type medals. The NBA Cup itself is a nice-looking trophy. Maybe the Lakers will hang a banner in Arena. I’m fine with that. Even guys making big money (doesn’t everyone who plays in the NBA?) said they were enticed by the financial incentive to go all out.

“It’s life-changing money for me too,” said Pacers center Obi Toppin, who earns $6.8 million annually. “I don’t care how much money you’ve got.”

It’s a concept that is probably going to be around for a long time, especially if the NBA increases the prize money for the players as it is hinting at doing. The lone caveat would be if one of the stars suffered a catastrophic injury that ended their career. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. I still have the horrific image in my head of Paul George breaking his leg in a USA Basketball scrimmage at the Thomas & Mack Center in 2014. 

Of course, an NBA player can suffer a major injury in any regular-season game. So even that might not be a deal-breaker for the In-Season Tournament going forward.

“I want to thank all the players in the league, the coaches and of course the teams for embracing this new concept,” Silver said Saturday. “I know it doesn’t come without challenges. There’s no doubt there’s some things that we’re learning this time through. Overall, we’re thrilled with the interest we’ve seen so far this season. We’re going to look at everything and see how we can build on the success from this year.”

As for Las Vegas, it was yet another opportunity to show the NBA it is ready to join the family and sit at the grownups’ table. Vegas has hosted preseason games, regular-season games, playoff games, All-Star games, summer league games, and now, this. We all expect at some point Silver will announce the league is ready to expand from 30 to 32 teams. Seattle will likely get its team back, a team it should never have lost. And you can expect Las Vegas to be chosen as well.

As cool as it is for the city to have a championship hockey team, as exciting as it has been to have the NFL here, and having a Major League Baseball team in a few years, an NBA team will arguably be the most popular pro sports team in town. We’ve always been a basketball city, thanks to Jerry Tarkanian and UNLV. We’ve had numerous individuals from Las Vegas play in the NBA. The city’s support of the league has been strong. Having a successful WNBA franchise (the Aces led the league in attendance this year) while winning back-to-back titles certainly helps.

And we’ll have no lack of ownership groups. The Oak View Group project to construct a 20,000-seat arena specifically for an NBA team which will be located on Blue Diamond Road off Interstate 15 as part of a $10 billion project will get built. Everything will fall into place when it’s time for it to happen. Perhaps Miriam Adelson will be the person to bring the NBA here. She’s spending $2 billion to be majority owner of the Dallas Mavericks and assuming she is approved following being vetted, she could conceivably sell her stake in the Mavericks when the time comes and try to own the Vegas franchise. 

Silver told me she wouldn’t necessarily have dibs on a Vegas expansion franchise and that her involvement with the Mavericks is totally separate from any interest she might have in an expansion team here.

But trust me, it’s coming. Silver’s embracing of the city speaks for itself. He could have held the In-Season Tournament anywhere in the world. But he knows this city and he genuinely likes coming here. So do the players. 

“My enthusiasm for bringing a team here post-career has not changed,” said James, who has publicly expressed interest in being part of a Las Vegas NBA ownership group.
“Everything is here. The NBA would be another great addition to this city.”

So no one needed to ask Silver about expansion and Vegas. It’s going to happen. We all know it. Just be patient. My words, not his.