Lakers beat Pelicans, advance to face Nuggets in the playoffs

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) goes to the basket in the first half of an NBA basketball play-in tournament game against the New Orleans Pelicans, Tuesday, April 16, 2024, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

D’Angelo Russell walked to the bench in the first quarter, goading the New Orleans crowd to jeer.

The Lakers guard had just gotten tangled up with Pelicans fan favorite and All-NBA pest Jose Alvarado, the two players both being called for technical fouls.

The crowd loved it.

As Alvarado led a New Orleans second-half comeback, the fiery guard jawed right at Russell every time he beat him off the dribble, every time he made the right pass or hit the big shot.

But with Alvarado stuck at the table watching, Russell stood open in front of the Pelicans bench. And as Austin Reaves kicked the ball to Russell, he had a chance for revenge.

He got it.

“Big-time shot,” LeBron James said.

Russell’s huge corner three and two Anthony Davis free throws after an offensive rebound were the big plays in the big moments, the Lakers advancing to the playoffs with a 110-106 win in the play-in game at Smoothie King Arena.

Read more: LeBron James has never been NBA defensive player of the year — and it really bugs him

The Lakers will get Denver in the first round beginning on Saturday (5:30 p.m., ABC), a Western Conference finals rematch from a year ago.

Zion Williamson, a thorn in the Lakers' side all game, exited after 40 points because of an injury. Pelicans coach Willie Green said Williamson left the game because of leg soreness, with testing to come Wednesday.

Davis and Austin Reaves made six free throws in the final minute to hold off the Pelicans.

The notion that the Lakers would somehow dodge the Nuggets by dropping the first play-in game against the Pelicans was always ridiculous, but even more so considering their early game approach.

James led all Lakers with 23 points during a night when they had to grind, their offensive rhythm never at 100%.

The Lakers ran up and down the court with the Pelicans early, doing the thing coach Darvin Ham said he wanted to see most from his team early — meeting New Orleans’ force with force of their own.

“Just the grit, the grit of our group,” Ham said. “[We] had a little bit of a cushion and they start making ... what we thought they were going to do, they did. They made their run. Threw some heavy blows at us. They kept swinging. We kept swinging back. Meet force with force.”

The trouble was the Lakers couldn’t force the ball through the rim. Davis bricked hooks and layups in the paint. James missed easy shots. The two made just three of their first 10 tries.

Only Russell, who scored 21 points and had six assists, found his offensive rhythm. His shot-making was just enough to keep the game from tilting too much toward the Pelicans early.

Reaves said Russell single-handedly kept the game from being an early blowout.

In the second quarter, led by a strong shift from Gabe Vincent, the Lakers found their footing. For the first time since last season’s NBA Finals, Vincent made multiple threes. James got going and got to the free-throw line — he ended up making all 10 of them on the night. And the Lakers flipped the game.

“He’s a ballhawk,” Davis said of Vincent.

“I just compete,” Vincent said.

They rolled out of halftime, despite Davis’ struggles, leading by as many as 18 in the third before New Orleans made its final run.

Williamson, who was so quiet on Sunday, got downhill and to the basket. James, who played with so much burst in the Lakers’ Game No. 82, looked cemented to the court on two blown layups.

And the Pelicans’ deep shooting, which had misfired in the middle two quarters, got hot late, trimming that lead all the way down to a single possession in the back half of the fourth.

The Pelicans tied it emphatically, on a Williamson lob dunk, after another in a stretch of broken possessions ended with Reaves rimming out a 35-footer with the Lakers deep into the shot clock.

But a big jumper from James over Herbert Jones and a Russell steal that led to a Reaves-to-Davis lob were enough late-game offense for the Lakers to hold on.

The Lakers figured it out, when it mattered most, however they could.

Now, they have to do it again.

“It's the defending champion. They know what it takes. They know how to win. They've been extremely dominant on their home floor over the last few years. They've got an MVP on their team. They've got a closer on their team. They've got high-level players, high-IQ players. And they've got a hell of a coach,” James said.

“So we have to play mistake-free basketball. Make it tough on them. They're gonna try to make it tough on us, obviously. But if we can play as great of a game as we can play, and they're gonna play as great of a game as they play, it's gonna come down to one or two possessions.

“And we'll see who executes then.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter on all things Lakers.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.