LeBron James, Lakers edge Suns to reach In-Season Tournament semifinals


LOS ANGELES — The Lakers’ hopes of winning the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament – and their aspirations of taking home the NBA Cup and ultimate cash prize of $500,000 per player – are still alive.

With LeBron James (31 points, 11 assists), Anthony Davis (27 points, 15 rebounds) and Austin Reaves (20 points) leading the way, the Lakers beat the Phoenix Suns, 106-103, on Tuesday night at Crypto.com Arena to advance to the tournament’s semifinals, which will be played in Las Vegas.

“You got some of the most alpha-male competitors in the world,” James said, “and if you give us an opportunity to play for something meaningful with an incentive, then you’ll get what you’re getting.”

James, in particular, made sure the Lakers punched their ticket to the next round of the tournament, adding eight rebounds and a season-high five steals to a masterful offensive night.

The 21-year NBA veteran scored or assisted on the Lakers’ first 19 points of the fourth quarter (15 points and two assists), including back-to-back baskets to give the hosts a 102-97 lead with 2:20 remaining.

“We like to put the ball in his hands and really make plays, whether it’s scoring, which he was able to do [Tuesday] and almost every other night, or it’s making plays for someone else,” said Davis, who added two blocked shots. “That’s crunch time. He did a good job of manipulating the game, especially in the fourth quarter. And that’s when it’s money time. And he’s been very successful in that quarter to take over games and give us a chance to win ball games.”

The Suns responded, with their star duo of Kevin Durant (31 points, seven rebounds, four assists) and Devin Booker (21 points, 11 rebounds, six assists but seven turnovers) both scoring to reduce the Lakers’ lead to 102-101 with 30 seconds remaining.

But Reaves delivered the dagger, knocking down a pull-up 3-pointer over Grayson Allen’s outstretched right arm after coming off a pick-and-roll with Davis to put the Lakers ahead 105-101 with 15 seconds left.

“He has made countless big shots for us,” Davis said. “Big plays for us. And we trust the ball in his hands.”

After Durant made another layup to cut the margin to 105-103 moments later, there was a controversial play with the Suns left furious when officials granted James’ request for a timeout while the ball appeared to be loose because Booker had knocked it away from Reaves an instant earlier.

“It’s a loose ball, and you can’t call a timeout on a loose ball,” Suns 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, (and the) damn whistle blows. It’s just frustrating.”

Crew Chief Josh Tiven stated in the postgame pool report that: “the official felt that L.A. still had possession of the ball when LeBron James requested the timeout. Through postgame video review in slow motion replay, we did see that Austin Reaves had his left hand on the ball while it’s pinned against his left leg, which does constitute control.”

Reaves said he thought Booker probably fouled him an instant before the timeout was granted.

“There was no call, and LeBron made a high-IQ play he’s made a million times,” Reaves said.

With the Suns down by two and intentionally fouling, Davis made one of two free throws (missing the second) with 6.6 seconds left to put the Lakers ahead by three. Durant missed a 30-foot pull-up 3-point attempt before the buzzer to seal the win for the Lakers.

Durant didn’t share his coach’s anger about the call, saying he didn’t initially believe the ball was loose when the timeout was granted.

“That’s not the ballgame,” Durant said. “That’s one play. It’s a 48-minute game. I don’t like to complain about calls. Sometimes the ref ain’t going to get it right all the time. Sometimes it’s on us to play through all that stuff and not worry about putting the game in the ref’s hands.”

The Lakers will play the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday at 6 p.m. at T-Mobile Arena to determine who will represent the Western Conference in Saturday’s championship game, also in Las Vegas.

The Lakers had full control of the first half, winning the possession battle in two key areas: taking care of the ball and offensive rebounds.

The Lakers had 12 offensive boards for 15 second-chance points and turned the Suns’ 14 first-half giveaways into 16 points in the opening 24 minutes.

The presence of forward Jarred Vanderbilt, playing just his second game of the season because of a heel injury, was most felt in these areas. He had four offensive rebounds in 7½ first-half minutes, with the Lakers scoring six second-chance points – a pair of 3-pointers – off of those offensive rebounds, helping the Lakers take a 59-47 lead going into halftime.

But the Lakers were not as sharp as they were in the first half coming out of the break.

A combination of turnovers and missed shots by the Lakers – and better shooting from the Suns, who were 6 for 9 from behind the arc in the third quarter – helped the Suns open the period on a 14-0 run to take a 61-59 lead, their first advantage since early in the first.

The scoring explosion from Reaves in the third, with him scoring 13 in the quarter, helped keep the Lakers afloat in a quarter they lost 35-24. The hosts had an 83-82 lead going into the fourth and held on for the win.

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