LOS ANGELES — In the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament single elimination round, the Los Angeles Lakers came away with a 106-103 victory vs. the Phoenix Suns, and no less than LeBron James was the Player of the Game, with a stat line of 31 points, 8 rebounds, 11 assists, and five steals. To point out, this makes LeBron the first Laker since Magic Johnson in 1987 to have 30+ points, 10+ assists, 5+ rebounds, and 5+ steals in a game.
“I continue to defy the odds,” James said after Tuesday night’s quarterfinal win. “Continue to have this battle with Father Time, that for so long everyone says has been undefeated. I’m trying to give him one loss.”
Despite late-game shots by Kevin Durant, who put up 10 of his own 31 points in the fourth quarter, down the stretch, LeBron took over the game, as he scored or assisted on 19 of the Lakers’ 23 points in the fourth quarter. This was almost reminiscent of LeBron’s 2007 Eastern Conference Finals game 5 performance vs. the Detroit Pistons, when he had 25 straight points in the fourth quarter and double-overtime to single-handedly lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to victory. The Lakers’ play-by-play scoring log included LeBron in every play except for the last two, an Austin Reaves‘ 3-pointer with 15 seconds left and a last-second free throw by Anthony Davis (27 points and 15 rebounds).
Even more, LeBron might have saved the game not with his physical play, but rather with a heads-up IQ decision by calling a late-game timeout at the most crucial moment. The Lakers had a 105-103 lead with 10 seconds left, when Reaves received the inbound pass and was immediately trapped. The Suns appeared to have forced a Reaves’ turnover, although, the ref blew the whistle and pointed at James to grant a request for a timeout. With attention to the call, after showing the replay, it was revealed Devin Booker knocked the ball loose with Reaves having no possession of the basketball before when the timeout was called.
The controversy surrounding this timeout at the end of the game, which allowed the Lakers to keep possession, left the Suns coaching staff furious. “It’s a loose ball, and you can’t call a timeout on a loose ball,” Phoenix coach Frank Vogel said. “The whistle blows. I don’t know why. Everything in the league is reviewable. I don’t know why that can’t be reviewable… We got the trap, we got the turnover… whistle blows. It’s just frustrating.”
After the game, Reaves stated that he felt that he was probably fouled by Booker before he lost the ball anyway. “There was no call, and LeBron made a high-IQ play he’s made a million times,” Reaves said.
In LeBron’s 21st season, he is still showing that he can be the most impactful player on the court, as he has risen to the occasion so far in this In-Season Tournament, averaging 26.2 points (56.5% FG, 57.1% 3P), 8.2 assists, and 8.0 rebounds in 5 tournament games. “It’s the inauguration,” LeBron said. “It is what it is at this point of the season. We have an opportunity to compete for something, so why not? You’ve got the greatest competitors in the world playing for something, so let’s fight.”
Throughout the tournament many have questioned the motivation of the players to win it all, that is to say, are teams just competing to win the first-ever In-Season Tournament championship for bragging rights? Although this may be somewhat true for some, as a reminder, there is prize money on the line, as $500,000 will be awarded to every player on the winning team of the tournament.
“They’re well aware of that bag,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham told reporters with a grin. “Money speaks, man.”
LeBron, who may be the richest current NBA player, has previously alluded to the fact that he was motivated to win that cash prize, albeit, the motive is probably to earn the bonuses for the team’s younger players who are on lesser contracts. Specifically, LeBron referenced this after a 14-point comeback group stage win vs. the Suns on November 10.
“It feels great because it’s an In-Season Tournament win,” he said. “There’s $500,000 on the line, so we’re going for that.”
The Lakers are one step closer to the prize, as they will play their semifinal game vs. the New Orleans Pelicans in Las Vegas on Thursday. And whoever wins will move on to the championship, where they will face the winner of the Milwaukee Bucks-Indiana Pacers matchup on Saturday.