Lakers know Pelicans present problems in rematch, but so does complacency

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James drives to the basket against New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson in the second half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Sunday, April 14, 2024. The Lakers won 124-108. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The Lakers are going to have to defend against CJ MCollum, the Pelicans guard who races into three-point shots from all angles on the court.

The Lakers are going to have to defend against forward Brandon Ingram, their former first-round draft pick, who has become one of the toughest shot-makers in the NBA.

The Lakers are going to have defend against Herb Jones and Trey Murphy III on the perimeter, two capable three-point shooters. They’re also going to have to defend against Zion Williamson, the explosively athletic big man with an uncommon combination of size, speed and strength.

You’d think that would be enough to deal with before their play-in tournament game with the Pelicans on Tuesday at the Smoothie King Center. Instead, the Lakers might have to defend against something else.


After dominating the Pelicans on Sunday during a 124-108 victory in a game both teams desperately wanted to win, some NBA followers, such as ESPN’s Mike Greenberg, have suggested the Lakers lose on purpose Tuesday to avoid a first-round matchup with the defending champion Denver Nuggets.

Read more: LeBron James’ triple-double helps Lakers secure eighth place for play-in game

Greenberg, on ESPN’s “Get Up” show, said the risk of falling into a single-elimination game against either the Golden State Warriors or Sacramento Kings was less than the risk of playing Denver in the first round — acting as if the Lakers can simply beat the Pelicans on Tuesday should they want to.

The winner between the Lakers and the Pelicans will open the playoffs Saturday at Denver. The loser of that game will play the winner of Sacramento-Golden State at home on Friday with a chance to face top-seeded Oklahoma City.

While there’s some natural looking ahead that occurs when the playoff bracket is set, players such as LeBron James knew the Lakers were basically in a playoff series they needed to win the first two games on the road.

And after winning road Game 1s last year in the first and second rounds, the Lakers lost Game 2 twice — neither being particularly close.

“You don’t get too high on one win because you have to come back and play again,” James cautioned Sunday after the victory in New Orleans. “…Tuesday’s game is going to be extremely hard, extremely difficult, extremely physical. I’ve always known that, when you play a playoff series — and I look at this like a two-game playoff series — if you win that first game, a team has multiple days to kind of sit on that feeling, or sit with that taste in their mouth of defeat. So they’re going to be extremely ready for us and we have to come in with the same sense of urgency that we had the previous game.”

The Lakers, though, have good reasons to feel positive about where they are. They’d won nine of 10 games before illness and injury kept them from being whole in losses against Minnesota and Golden State. They stumbled in an ugly win Friday before cruising Sunday.

“You could just feel the vibe when we did our walk-through yesterday at the hotel,” coach Darvin Ham said Sunday. “We watched film. A lot of guys were disappointed in the way we kind of didn’t completely drop the rope by some mistakes we made in that Memphis game. Just trying to make sure we’re as tight as possible on both sides of the ball in terms of our execution. So we wanted to come out early and set a tone defensively. And also set a tone offensively by not settling. Defensively, giving multiple efforts.”

At the foreground was James, who took the responsibility of guarding Williamson.

“I just want to win so whatever the game presents itself for me to be, if it needs me to be more attacking and scoring range, or if it needs me to be more of a set-up guy, if it needs me to be more of a defender, I got to do it all,” James said. “I am a Swiss Army knife so I got to do it all on the floor and none of it’s predetermined.”

The only thing they can, the Lakers have said, control is the game in front of them. And when it comes to tempting fate beyond that, the Lakers can’t risk anything.

“Up-and-down season,” Anthony Davis said. “We had our highs. We had our lows. We had our share of injuries. Like I said, 12 games over .500. Obviously we don’t want to be in this position, but we are. We’re gonna make the best of it one at a time starting Tuesday.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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