LAS VEGAS — It may not be home officially, but it’s pretty damn close.
The Los Angeles Lakers have always considered Las Vegas part of their basketball universe. They’ve played preseason games here. They’ve played regular season games here. They’ve played summer league games here. They even played a playoff game here back in 1992 when the Rodney King Riots forced them to abandon the Forum in Inglewood for the Thomas & Mack Center to host Portland in Game 4.
Thursday, they traveled 266 miles from L.A. to Las Vegas, their home away from home and with 18,017 of their closest friends in tow at T-Mobile Arena for the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament, they made it known they are not relinquishing anything to anyone.
As you would expect, the stars — LeBron James and Anthony Davis —led the way and the New Orleans Pelicans were unable to neutralize Los Angeles’ 1-2 punch. James had 30 points, 21 in the first half while Davis had a double-double of 16 points and 15 rebounds as the Lakers rolled to a 133-89 win.
The Lakers will face the Indiana Pacers Saturday for the NBA Cup championship. The Pacers saw a 12-point halftime lead evaporate in the third quarter to the Milwaukee Bucks, only to rally behind star guard Tyrese Haliburton’s 27 points and win 128-119 to earn their spot in the title game. Indiana defeated Boston in the quarterfinals to get to Las Vegas.
“Just trying to lead by example,” James said about his mindset for this event. “Make plays on the floor. Be unselfish, try to make the right plays offensively, defensively, cover for my teammates and live with the results.”
The games came 24 hours after the shooting tragedy at UNLV which left three instructors dead and a fourth in the hospital. A moment of silence was observed prior to tip-off for both semifinals. The NBA did not postpone the event though the National Finals Rodeo, which was scheduled to begin its 10-day run Thursday at the Thomas & Mack Center, which is located on UNLV’s campus, did not have its performance.
You could tell from the opening tip that James had no intention of losing Thursday night. He may be 38 years old, but he looked more like he was 18. He was spry, energetic and dominant, the LeBron that built his Hall of Fame legacy. The Pelicans were unable to slow him down, much less contain him. Stop him?Forget it. He spotted up for open jumpers. Put the ball on the floor and drove to the basket. Worked off screens with his teammates and either dished off when the Pelicans tried to double-team him or kept it himself. Defensively, he took three charges which energized his teammates. It left coach Darvin Ham searching for new adjectives to describe the future Hall of Famer.
“I’m a simple guy, so I’ll keep it to one word — extraordinary,” he said. “Otherworldly. That’s two, I know. A ‘One-of-one.’ That’s a phrase. That’s not a word.
“He’s the ultimate tone-setter. Just everything, from our meeting, to our walk-through, his communication, helping guys visually see what the game plan we were trying to execute and we were able to execute. His energy. Him sacrificing his body — three charges. He set an unbelievable tone on both ends of the basketball court for us tonight.
“It’s just a huge, huge blessing to have that working in your favor and to be on the same side as that.”
With 5:44 to play in the third quarter, the Lakers had a 30, yes 30-point lead, 90-60. They would lead by as many as 44 in the fourth quarter.
“I think we’re starting to figure it out,” James said. “We are starting to get healthy. We are starting to see what our team looks like. We know who we are going to be playing with out on the floor. Guys are feeling in a really good rhythm offensively and defensively. It definitely helps.”
James is clearly motivated to win this first-time event. When the NBA played its postseason in the Orlando bubble during the Covid pandemic in 2020, the Lakers were the last team standing. James, who played just over 22 minutes Thursday, said that’s the goal for Saturday, to be the last ones with the trophy.
“We’ve got to finish our breakfast on Saturday,” James said. “That’s the most important thing.”
So the page now turns to Saturday. Anyone who thinks the Pacers are going to be an easy out are in for a rude awakening. They’re young, energetic, exciting and put up a ton of points, reminiscent of their ABA ancestors from the late 1960s and pre-merger ’70s that culminated with three titles.
“It’s why we came here (to Las Vegas),” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. “We didn’t come here to make it look good. It’s all about getting to the finish line. It’s a collective will to win.”