If Sunday's matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans was a first-round playoff preview, it does not bode well for the latter.
Los Angeles completed its four-game season sweep of the Pelicans with a 122-114 victory at Smoothie King Center. LeBron James was unstoppable in crunch time and led the way with a triple-double, helping his team improve to a Western Conference-best 46-13 overall and 8-1 in the last nine games even though Anthony Davis was out with a sore knee.
As for New Orleans, it fell to 26-34 on the season with a second loss in its last three contests.
Notable Player Stats
- LAL F LeBron James: 34 points, 13 assists, 12 rebounds and two steals
- LAL F Kyle Kuzma: 20 points and four rebounds
- NO F Zion Williamson: 35 points and seven rebounds
- NO G Lonzo Ball: 19 points, nine rebounds, nine assists and three steals
LeBron Continues to Defy Age, Thrives in Showdown with Rookie
James is 35 years old and in his 17th season in the league with nine trips to the NBA Finals on his legs. Logic suggests he should be slowing down as Zion Williamson enters his prime, but one of the all-time greats sent quite the message to the youngster's side Sunday.
It was much-needed with Davis sidelined.
Davis' absence figured to be even more significant considering he exploded for 41 points in November during his first game in New Orleans since the Pelicans traded him. The extra motivation was clear, and the Pelicans had no answers for him in that contest.
His injury put the onus on James to run the offense and serve as the primary scorer without his running mate.
All the King did was put up a triple-double and seize complete control in the most important moments. He consistently made the right read and whipped passes to the open shooters, battled for the boards like a big and powered his way to the rim whenever he faced a single defender.
He was at his best in the fourth quarter, spinning past Josh Hart for a dunk and blowing past him for a layup on back-to-back trips, which forced double-teams to come his way on ensuing possessions. James made the Pelicans pay for those doubles when he found a wide-open Kyle Kuzma for a critical corner three to push the lead to four in the final minutes.
When New Orleans rethought those doubles, he drilled a contested triple over Zion.
LeBron sported a head-turning plus-minus of plus-22, underscoring the fact the Lakers were on a different level whenever he was on the floor in yet another memorable performance.
Pelicans Squander Golden Opportunity
The potential for a first-round matchup between the Pelicans and Lakers served as the backdrop for Sunday's game.
New Orleans was 2.5 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed entering play, and it isn't difficult to envision a showdown with plenty of star power on the floor with James and Davis on one side and Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday on the other.
The storyline of Davis playing against the Pelicans team that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2012 and built around him for seven seasons would also take center stage in such a series, but that squad's inability to beat his new team this season is one reason it is looking up at the Grizzlies.
Sunday was a golden opportunity to gain ground for New Orleans with Davis sidelined and home-court advantage, and Williamson did what he could to seize it.
He showed soft touch on the low post, dazzled with his dunks and even went straight at LeBron in the post in the opening quarter. It was more of the same for the Duke product, who has now scored 20 or more points in 11 straight games.
The Pelicans didn't play particularly poorly either, as all five starters scored in double figures. Lonzo Ball impressed and stuffed the stat sheet, Derrick Favors battled down low, and Williamson looked like a 10-year vet, but they ultimately couldn't overcome Ingram's ugly 5-of-23 line from the field.
New Orleans is running out of time with just 22 games remaining.
This felt like a major chance with Davis out and Williamson turning in one of his best overall games, but it was unable to hold a fourth-quarter lead in front of the home fans. If the Pelicans miss the playoffs by one game, they will surely reflect back on the latest loss.
Both teams are home Tuesday when the Lakers face the Philadelphia 76ers and the Pelicans host the Minnesota Timberwolves.