The joke, publicly and privately, among the Lakers leading up to and during the NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament was the amazement at how badly a room of rich people could want to win the $500,000 prize waiting for each winning player in Las Vegas.
“The bag,” they said was an amazing motivator, the kind that could turn pre-Christmas, regular-season basketball into something that rivaled postseason energy and intensity.
But there was one other driving factor, the biggest competitors on earth all pushing to be the first.
Tuesday night in the quarterfinals, a game that would end or extend the Lakers’ time in the tournament, Austin Reaves’ three-pointer with 15 seconds left pushed them to a 106-103 win over the Phoenix Suns at Crypto.com Arena. The Lakers will play the New Orleans Pelicans in Las Vegas on Thursday at 6 p.m. PST, two wins away from the grand prize. The Milwaukee Bucks face the Indiana Pacers in an earlier semifinal.
The tone for this entire event has been set by LeBron James, the biggest star in the league who approached the games with added urgency.
“He really wants to be the first,” one Lakers staffer admitted pregame.
Tuesday, he played like it.
The beat to Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode” boomed as the fans rose to their feet and waited for James to write the script for whatever was coming next.
He bounded into the paint with the speed and strength that has been unmatched at age 38 in basketball history. He contorted and scored from the left side, the Suns calling a timeout and James delivering his 31st point of the game.
He finished with those 31 to go with eight rebounds and 11 assists. He also had five steals, playing with the kind of defensive effort that’s usually not there on a nightly basis for the league’s all-time leading scorer.
The Suns had a late chance, nearly forcing a Reaves turnover in the backcourt, but the Lakers were awarded a timeout. Anthony Davis split on a pair of free throws, but Kevin Durant’s long shot at the buzzer wasn’t close.
In their first two meetings this season, the script was nearly identical.
The Suns, the team with the better shot-making, would race to the big early lead before the Lakers would find something leading to a second-half run and a stolen win.
This time, the plot was the same — the characters just swapped parts.
It began with a gift, a sloppy turnover to begin the second half for a team that did almost nothing but commit them for the previous 24 minutes.
The mistake triggered a run that would erase all the good will the Lakers had built in the first half.
Unlike their first two meetings, the Lakers were the team that set the tone from the tip, dictating the flow of the game with force and intensity. The Suns seemed to be caught off guard, committing 10 of their 20 turnovers in the first quarter.
The Lakers led by as many 15, James’ playmaking and Davis’ dominance inside putting them in great position to advance with just two quarters to play.
Then, the gift.
James began the second half with a turnover leading to an easy uncontested layup for the Suns that gassed them up for a quick, lighting-strike run to reset the game.
The Suns scored 14 straight points beginning with that bucket, enough to grab the lead for the first time since the score was 9-7.
The Lakers, knocked back on their heels, turned to Reaves who reinjected life into the team after a horrific 113 seconds erased its double-digit lead. He responded with a snippet of the play that made him one of Team USA’s best this summer at the FIBA World Cup, hitting threes, drawing fouls and even scoring on a putback.
But the big shot in the fourth, an arcing triple with 15.1 seconds left that ended with Reaves flexing and howling, was his biggest moment.
Now, the Lakers get a chance at making more of them.