James shook Williamson, then stepped back and released a three-pointer over the heralded New Orleans Pelicans rookie forward. The basket with 2 minutes 27 seconds remaining gave the Lakers a five-point lead. James backpedaled and looked toward his team’s bench with his tongue hanging out, Williamson trailing close behind. James’ face then settled into a snarl.
The Lakers defeated the Pelicans 122-114 to sweep the season series 4-0 against a young team with which they are inextricably linked.
James notched a triple-double with 34 points, 13 assists and 12 rebounds, while Williamson, a player some league observers believe is the surest prospect since James entered the NBA, scored a career-high 35 points.
Kyle Kuzma started in place of Anthony Davis, the former Pelican who was listed as being out with a sore knee, and scored 20 points. The Lakers also received 40 points off their bench, nearly twice what New Orleans got. Williamson added seven rebounds. Former Laker Lonzo Ball, who was part of the offseason trade for Davis, nearly had a triple-double for the Pelicans with 19 points, nine assists and nine rebounds. Brandon Ingram, also part of the deal for Davis, scored 15 points.
“That’s the junior Lakers, the guys that were here before we got here,” Lakers guard Danny Green said. “A very high-talented, good group. They have a lot of potential. They’re up and coming. They’re going to be a good team, their future with the pieces they have and the pieces they’re going to get. … We’ll see what happens at the end of the season, where they land. We might see them — you never know — in a playoff matchup.”
The Lakers trailed by four points at the end of the first quarter.
They were behind for most of the second quarter, but James made a momentum-shifting play with 33.4 seconds left. He launched a three-pointer from 34 feet out that tied the game at 61. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope stole the ball from Williamson on the next play and scored to give the Lakers a two-point lead at halftime.
“He was the first one on the court today. He was shooting that shot today,” Lakers guard Quinn Cook said of James. “He’s our best deep shooter. I know coach says it all the time. ... To have the wherewithal to know let’s get a quick two-for-one. He shot it with confidence. Big-time play. I know Zion had a big dunk right before that.”
There were 15 lead changes in the first half.
The Lakers often double-teamed Williamson, and the Pelicans often double-teamed James with less success. On a critical fourth-quarter play, James and Caldwell-Pope were defending Williamson. He backed up, fell and lost the ball. On the other end of the court, Cook made a jumper to give the Lakers a five-point lead with 7:24 remaining.
“We had one of the best players in the league out tonight,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “That’s what makes the win feel that much better for us. It was a next-man-up-type of night. Kuz was great. Our bigs were great.”
It’s the end of the teams’ matchups for now. The Pelicans (26-34) hope to rise into the eighth seed in the Western Conference, but they fell to three games behind the Memphis Grizzlies, who are in eighth and coming off a win over the Lakers. For that reason, the conference-leading Lakers (46-13) knew New Orleans would be highly motivated. The connections between the teams added to that feeling.
After the game, James visited with Williamson. It was the first time the two had shared a conversation.
“You know me, man,” James said when asked about that conversation. “You know me. It’s my obligation and it’s my job to continue to pass on the game to the guys that’s coming in after me. That’s just my responsibility. No one told me to do that. I just feel like it’s my responsibility to leave the game in a better place than when I had it.”