LAS VEGAS: The Los Angeles Lakers, fueled by 30 points from ageless LeBron James, routed New Orleans 133-89 on Thursday to book a title showdown with upstarts Indiana in the inaugural NBA in-season tournament.
James, who will celebrate his 39th birthday on Dec. 30, was ruthlessly efficient, connecting on nine of his 12 attempts from the floor including four-of-four from three-point range.
He piled up his 30 points, with five rebounds and eight assists, in less than 23 minutes on the floor.
“Extraordinary” and “otherworldly” were two words Lakers coach Darvin Ham used to describe James, who also absorbed three charging fouls.
“He is the ultimate tone-setter,” Ham said. “His energy, him sacrificing his body — three charges. He set the tone for us on both ends of the basketball court for us tonight.”
He sat out the entire fourth quarter as both teams pulled their starters. The Lakers had taken full control, outscoring the shellshocked Pelicans 43-17 in the third period.
The first semifinal of the new tournament was an altogether different affair, with Tyrese Haliburton scoring 27 points to propel the Pacers to a 128-119 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in a game that featured 16 lead changes — seven of them in the fourth quarter.
Haliburton added 15 assists, without a turnover, and Myles Turner scored 26 points and pulled down 10 rebounds.
Indiana, sixth in the Eastern Conference regular-season standings, had knocked out the East-leading Boston Celtics in the quarterfinals and followed up with another scintillating showing against the 2021 NBA champion Bucks, who were led by 37 points and 10 rebounds from two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The tournament has been a coming-out party for Haliburton and the Pacers, who came into Thursday’s game averaging more than 128 points per game but whose NBA title hopes have been largely discounted.
“I think we’re shocking the world right now,” Haliburton said. “Nobody expected us to be here except for the guys in the locker room.”
The Bucks out-scored the Pacers 43-28 in the third quarter to take a 94-91 lead into the final period. Damian Lillard, who scored just four points in the first half, scored 20 in the second for Milwaukee.
But in a nip-and-tuck fourth, Turner’s put-back layup gave the Pacers a 115-112 lead with 2:19 to play. Haliburton added a layup and a step-back three-pointer as the Pacers pushed the lead to 122-114 with 49.5 seconds left.
The in-season tournament, conceived to add excitement to the early stages of the long NBA season, has proved the perfect showcase for the high-octane Pacers, who have never won an NBA title.
“We’re in an inaugural championship game,” Haliburton said. “That’s going to go down in history. But we didn’t just come here to play one game, play in two games, compete.
“We came here to win.”
For the Lakers, whose 17 NBA titles are tied for the most in history with the Boston Celtics, it’s a chance to get in on the ground floor of the new competition.
But four-time NBA champion James said the Lakers won’t let it distract from the long-term goal of capping his 21st NBA season with another title come June.
“Listen, it’s still December, so I’m not getting too crazy about the whole thing,” James said. “I understand this thing has been great, the in-season tournament, but it’s still December.
“But it is another game for us to get better and we want to try to win the game because we’re a team that wants to get better every single game we go out there, every quarter, every possession.”
The Pelicans weathered the Lakers’ hot shooting start, their 13-8 rebounding advantage in the first quarter helping New Orleans take a 30-29 lead through one period.
James responded, making three straight three-pointers to open the second quarter. He scored 18 of his 21 first-half points in the second period — his most in any quarter this season — as the Lakers seized a 67-54 halftime lead.
Anthony Davis added 16 points and 15 rebounds and Austin Reaves added 17 points off the bench for the Lakers, who had six players score in double figures.
“We’re continuing to get better, but the most important thing, we continue to get healthy,” James said. “Guys are buying into what we want to do defensively.
“We’re helping each other, we’re sharing the ball offensively, and we’re just playing Laker basketball right now.”