LOS ANGELES: LeBron James scored 31 points as the Los Angeles Lakers won a thrilling duel with the Phoenix Suns 106-103 on Tuesday to advance to the semifinals of the NBA’s in-season tournament.
James produced a trademark clutch fourth quarter performance with 15 points in a victory that sends the Lakers into a last-four showdown with the New Orleans Pelicans in Las Vegas on Thursday.
In Tuesday’s other quarterfinal, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard combined for 63 points as the Milwaukee Bucks advanced to the semifinals with a 146-122 rout of the New York Knicks.
But the game of the night was unquestionably in Los Angeles, where James and the Lakers held off a ferocious second-half fightback from Kevin Durant and the Suns to prevail in a classic.
The Lakers dominated the first half to lead by 12 at the break, up 59-47.
But the Suns roared back in the third quarter, outscoring the Lakers 35-24 to make it a one-point game heading into the fourth.
The 38-year-old James though was in no mood to surrender victory and found his scoring touch to shepherd the Lakers over the line.
Austin Reaves nailed a superb three-pointer to give the Lakers a four-point advantage with 15 seconds on the clock.
Durant cut the gap to two points with a reverse layup but missed with a last-gasp attempted buzzer beater that would have forced overtime.
“I’ve been there a lot in my career and I understand the assignment,” James said of his ruthless fourth-quarter display.
“I was happy I was able to make a couple of plays, but the big shot came from AR (Austin Reaves) to take us up by four... that was big-time.”
James finished with 31 points from 12-of-25 shooting, with 11 assists and five rebounds. Anthony Davis added 27 points with 15 rebounds while Reaves added 20 points in a scintillating cameo from the bench.
Durant led the Phoenix scoring with 31 points while Grayson Allen and Devin Booker finished with 21 points apiece for the Suns.
Milwaukee advanced to a showdown against the Indiana Pacers in Thursday’s other semifinal after pulling clear of the Knicks with a huge third quarter.
Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee scorers with 35 points while Lillard weighed in with 28 points, including 5-of-7 from three-point distance.
Antetokounmpo finished with 10 assists and eight rebounds.
Malik Beasley (18 points), Khris Middleton (14), Bobby Portis (13) and Cameron Payne (12) all made double figures for Milwaukee.
Antetokounmpo was heartened by a display which provided more evidence that the former NBA Most Valuable Player’s blockbuster partnership with summer signing Lillard is starting to gel.
“Game by game we are getting more comfortable,” Antetokounmpo said of his on-court chemistry with Lillard. “We have a lot of games ahead of us.
“As we play more minutes we’re going to be more comfortable together... at the end of the day I think me and him are setting the tone for the whole team.”
New York were led by a 41-point display from Julius Randle while Jalen Brunson finished with 24 points.
The Knicks however were always chasing the game after Milwaukee’s third-quarter scoring spree.
A see-saw first quarter saw 15 lead changes before Milwaukee edged into a two-point lead at 37-35, and a similarly hard-fought second quarter left the Bucks up by just three at the break at 75-72.
But the game tilted decisively in favor of Milwaukee in the third quarter as the Bucks began to score at will, with Antetokounmpo pouring in 13 points to help the top seeds build an unassailable lead.
A 15-foot jump shot from Portis gave Milwaukee an 18-point cushion with a minute remaining in the third quarter, and there was no way back for New York.
The Knicks rallied to close within nine after Donte DiVincenzo’s running layup early in the fourth quarter made it 112-103.
But the fightback was shortlived as back-to-back three-pointers from Beasley quickly re-established Milwaukee’s double-digit advantage.
A Payne three-pointer put Milwaukee 20 points ahead at 125-105 midway through the fourth quarter and the Bucks cruised home to seal their last-four berth.