Coming off of their gritty win over the Phoenix Suns in the Quarterfinals, the Lakers have prepared to take on the Pelicans in the In-Season Tournament Semis, hoping to keep their hopes of winning the NBA Cup alive.
With momentum on their side, here are four keys for the purple and gold in tonight’s matchup.
Four Keys for the Lakers in the In-Season Tournament Semifinals
LeBron Continuing His Streak Against Father Time
LeBron James continues to defy Father Time in year 21. In LA’s Quarterfinal victory, James recorded 31 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds and five steals—the first Laker to put up those numbers since Magic Johnson in 1987. A near-39-year-old who’s putting up 24.7 PPG, 7.6 RPG and 6.6 APG on .546/.387/.697 splits is unheard of. James recently said he wants to defeat Father Time:
“I give myself an opportunity to, I guess, surprise myself still what I’m able to do for as long as I’ve been in this league and for as many miles as I’ve put on these tires. I wanna continue to defy the odds, continue to have this battle with Father Time that for so long everybody said has been undefeated. Trying to give it one loss.”
James’s ability to lead the offense—both in scoring and facilitating—has been a major factor as to why the Lakers have risen to fourth in the West. Though there may be some nights where Anthony Davis, D’Angelo Russell or Austin Reaves break out, the focus is still very much on LeBron at the end of the day. His success is possible through the fact that the Lakers have built an excellent team around him. At the same time, James has given as much as he’s received, with his ability to find open teammates at the right times and implement strategies like it’s nothing.
LeBron’s scintillating scoring coupled with the high-hoops IQ have been the driving forces behind LA’s run against standout competitors at every stage of the In-Season Tournament. Now, he’ll look to continue making strides against New Orleans, a team he averaged 22.7 points, 8.6 rebounds and 6.7 assists against last season.
Anthony Davis Revenge Game
Speaking of Anthony Davis, he’s had the Pelicans’ number after the way his tenure ended in the Big Easy. In four games against NOLA last year, AD averaged 29.3 points, 14.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists on .584/.375/.828 splits. This season, AD is putting up 23 points, 12.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.8 blocks per game—making a serious case to collect some hardware at season’s end.
For now, Davis must continue asserting his dominance. He’s made his mark on the defensive end, which will be crucial against the Pels’ front court of Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas. Limiting New Orleans’ points in the paint—of which they average 52.5 per game—is a must. Additionally, AD must remain active on the glass. Judging by the fact he’s collected 189 of LA’s defensive rebounds so far (26%), that shouldn’t be a problem.
Offensively, Davis will have to feast near the basket, as the Pelicans have given up an average of 47.6 points in the paint (11th in the NBA). Davis boasts a two-point field goal percentage of 54.2%, and his ability to score on his own or from teammates will be essential against a smart, strong Pelican defense. Like James, AD will also need to make plays from time to time. His ability to find open teammates and send defenses into scramble mode is an underrated aspect to watch tonight.
Austin Reaves and the Lakers’ Bench
Austin Reaves has been a revelation in his newfound sixth man role. Now facing a Pelicans squad without two key bench contributors—former Lakers Larry Nance Jr. and Matt Ryan—he has a chance to run the scoreboard up once again. Reaves recorded 20 points on 6/11 shooting from the field—including a dagger three—against Phoenix on Tuesday. In 14 games leading the second unit, he put up 14.5 PPG, 4.9 RPG and 4.9 APG. He also shot 49% from the field, 34% from distance and 88% from the free-throw line.
Following the win over Phoenix, Head Coach Darvin Ham heaped well-deserved praise on Reaves:
“Austin is a big-time player. It’s the reason we wanted him here, for the present and the future. Everybody saw what he did to finish the year last year, what he did for Team USA. He’s just grown and grown and grown. He thrives on those moments, those big moments where it’s getting a big stop, making a pass, making a big shot, drawing fouls at key moments. He’s just a big-time player flat out. And he saved us a little bit tonight.”
Reaves is the bright spot for a Lakers bench putting up 30.2 PPG (21st in the NBA), 15.4 RPG (13th) and 6.6 APG (20th). The group has also been inefficient shooting-wise, posting marks of 44% from the field, 27% from three and 74% from the line. The numbers may be poor right now due to the recent wave of injuries, and the ramp-ups of Jarred Vanderbilt and Rui Hachimura will help them greatly. Still, Reaves has found his groove as the man leading the Lakers’ bench. Entering the semis with unwavering confidence is a great sign for him and the rest of the team.
Jarred Vanderbilt and the Little Things
Finally, one of the tenets of a winning roster is their ability to do the little things. Jarred Vanderbilt has been the walking example of that for the Lakers. Returning from a heel injury, Vando jumped right in to contribute to winning basketball. He recently recorded six rebounds, two assists and a steal against the Suns in 14 minutes of action. What wasn’t tracked, however, was his impact on defensive rotations:
Just watch Jarred Vanderbilt.
This is who the Lakers significantly missed pic.twitter.com/wH4caRlpjn
— Nicole Ganglani (@nicoleganglani) December 6, 2023
Vanderbilt is the catalyst behind LA’s need to do the little things. As a team, they’ve averaged 35.4 defensive rebounds (4th in the NBA), 7.7 steals and 5.9 blocks. Offensively, they’ve scored an average of 15.5 points through fastbreaks—a notable aspect considering the Pelicans’ 14.8—and have generated 17.7 points off of opponents’ mistakes. Adding the energetic 6-foot-9 combo forward will boost the Lakers’ play on both sides of the floor, making his mark in multiple areas.
With several two-way talents on the other side, it’s important that the Lakers take care of the little things early, whether it’s securing defensive rebounds, hustling for more opportunities, or spacing the floor. Vanderbilt will help with that tremendously, but it’s up to the rest of LA’s players to follow suit.
The Last Word on the Lakers in the IST Semis
These players and strategies will be at the forefront for the Lakers’ semifinal matchup against the Pelicans tonight. The In-Season Tournament has brought the playoff atmosphere to December. Succeeding in these areas will only benefit the Lakers as they prepare for the real deal in April and May.