LOS ANGELES — LeBron James. Anthony Davis. Zion Williamson. Brandon Ingram. Lonzo Ball.
Not only big names, but some big names who used to play for the other team and were traded in a massive offseason deal that netted the Los Angeles Lakers Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans Ingram, Ball, Josh Hart and a draft pick who turned into Jaxson Hayes.
Add another big name for this game: "Nature Boy" Ric Flair, who celebrated his 71st birthday by professing his admiration for the Lakers and James pregame, calling Los Angeles the greatest franchise and James the greatest player on the planet.
Ric Flair with all sorts of praise to the Lakers and LeBron James. Lakers fans: “WOOOOOOOOO!” pic.twitter.com/XUOXwuOZe0
And it was Williamson’s first career game against the Lakers. He didn’t disappoint either, finishing with 29 points, six rebounds, three assists and flurry of backboard-shaking dunks.
Impressive as it was, along with Ingram’s 34 points, it wasn’t enough to beat James and the Lakers. James had 16 of his game-high 40 points – a season high for him – in the third quarter, Davis had 21 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks and the Lakers defeated the Pelicans 118-109 on Tuesday.
LeBron James dunks the ball during the first half of the Lakers' win against the Pelicans. (Photo: Richard Mackson, USA TODAY Sports)
Zion puts on show in first game against the Lakers
Williamson missed the two previous Pelicans-Lakers games as he recovered from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. He’s been on a tear since his NBA debut on Jan. 22. He has scored at least 20 points in 11 of his 13 games, including nine consecutive.
He started slowly with just four points in the first quarter but he had 13 in the second. Williamson had four big dunks in the first half and showed off his strength and explosive quickness. He had no trouble forcing the action against Davis and Dwight Howard and got to the foul line, taking a career-high 19 free throws.
ZO AND ZION PUTTING ON A SHOW pic.twitter.com/wCOd2u2ELh
He finished 8-for-18 from the field – not his most efficient shooting as he has struggled with taller players early in his career. He was 13-for-19 from the foul line.
"The kid's special," James said of Williamson in his postgame on-court interview. "We all know that. And every game is going to be another opportunity for him to get better. Learning experience for him."
“The kid is special.” ?@KingJames talks with @ChrisBHaynes on his first matchup against Zion. pic.twitter.com/vXxlIfpw9v
Lakers play after another emotional day
The Lakers had to follow up Monday’s "Celebration of Life" for Kobe and Gianna Bryant with a high-profile game against the Pelicans on TNT. It was an emotionally draining day on Monday.
“Yesterday was another heavily emotional day, like it’s been a couple different times since this all happened,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “But you come into work the next day and you try to block that all out and you’ve got to go back to where you were two days ago with the Boston game and recap that with your guys and highlight the positives and negatives and turn the page into trying to win tonight’s game against a very good Pelicans team that’s playing the best basketball of the year.”
The Lakers managed it well. They beat Boston on Sunday and then the Pelicans on Tuesday.
Preview of a 1-8 playoff matchup?
The Pelicans-Lakers game was a potential first-round playoff matchup. And the NBA and its TV partners would love that one seed vs. eight seed in mid-April.
But first things first. The Pelicans need to get into the playoffs. They are 25-33 and in 10th place in the Western Conference, a half game behind ninth-place Portland and 3½ games behind Memphis for the eighth and final playoff spot.
After a 13-game losing streak that ended on Dec. 17, the Pelicans are 18-11.
“As we got healthier, we played better basketball,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “But we believed in ourselves even though we went through the long losing streak there. We played good basketball. We just had that five minute or seven minute stretches that cost us games.”
Memphis is battling injuries and will be without injured Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke for about the next two weeks.
There’s a window for Portland and New Orleans to make a move.
Lakers-Pelicans would be an entertaining first-round matchup with storylines galore.
“I personally don’t try to avoid any playoff series,” said Vogel whose team is 44-12 with a five-game lead over second-place Denver. “We win as many games as we can in the regular season, and whatever matchup comes our way, we welcome it. We’ve got a team that I feel can beat anybody, so none of that stuff is anything I try to avoid.”
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