LeBron James is highly energized about the prospects of leading the Los Angeles Lakers to the inaugural NBA Cup.
The top-seeded Lakers are one victory away from reaching the final as they battle the third-seeded New Orleans Pelicans in the West semifinal of the NBA in-season tournament on Thursday night at Las Vegas.
The victor will face the East semifinal winner, either the Milwaukee Bucks or Indiana Pacers, in Saturday’s championship game.
The first-time event wouldn’t seem to be that much of a big deal to a 19-time All-Star like James, who has four regular-season MVPs, four championship rings and the NBA’s all-time leading scorer title on his resume.
“You’ve got some of the most alpha male competitors in the world, and if you give us an opportunity to play for something meaningful or an incentive, then you get what you’re getting,” James said after the Lakers posted a 106-103 win over the Phoenix Suns in Tuesday’s quarterfinal matchup.
“The in-season tournament is what it is, and we have an opportunity to play on a big stage, be on national television, represent our families, our communities, where we come from.”
There is also the prize of $500,000 that goes to every winning player of the last team standing.
Regardless, a highly motivated James had a huge outing against the Suns with 31 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds and five steals.
But it wasn’t James who made the biggest shot for the Lakers. Austin Reaves drained a 3-pointer to push the Los Angeles lead to four with 15.3 seconds left and make it a two-possession game.
“We just have a lot of confidence in (Reaves) and what he’s able to bring to our team and his ability to score at will or draw fouls,” Lakers star forward Anthony Davis said of Reaves, who scored 20 points. “Whether it’s late game or mid-game or early game, we feel like we can go to him at any time and he’ll make the right play.”
Davis delivered 27 points, 15 rebounds and two blocked shots and once again faces his former club in the Pelicans.
The trade following the 2018-19 season has worked out well for both franchises. James has the sidekick he covets in Davis, and former No. 2 overall pick Brandon Ingram has become a star for New Orleans.
Ingram has a 23.7 scoring average in 242 games for the Pelicans and has five outings of 30 or more points so far this season.
One of those came in Monday’s 127-117 West quarterfinal victory on the road against the Sacramento Kings. He added eight rebounds and six assists.
“(Ingram) was incredible,” New Orleans coach Willie Green said. “He put us on his shoulders and he carried us. He had big shot after big shot. Whenever we needed a big bucket, we put it in his hands. He’s a big-time player.”
The Pelicans also feature forward Zion Williamson, who is currently healthy and has played in 18 games this season. He played in just 29 games over the previous two seasons. Williamson is averaging 22.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists.
New Orleans has a deep roster that includes bench players Trey Murphy III and Jose Alvarado, who both recently returned from injuries. Few players can match the energy Alvarado brings to the table. Even a legend like James.
“We’re excited,” Alvarado said of being in the semifinals. “It’s one of those (unique) feelings, but we have to keep winning.”
The Lakers went 3-1 against the Pelicans last season.