NBA play-in: Lakers fend off Pelicans rally, advance to face Nuggets; Zion Williamson leaves late with injury

Zion Williamson gave the Los Angeles Lakers his best shot on Tuesday.

It wasn’t enough. The Lakers overcame a late Pelicans rally and a big play from Williamson for a 110-106 victory at New Orleans in the NBA play-in tournament. With the victory, the Lakers secured seventh place in the Western Conference playoffs and a first-round matchup with the defending champion Denver Nuggets.

Zion scores 40 goals and leaves the game with injury

The Lakers built and lost an 18-point lead only to delay a late Pelicans rally for the victory. Williamson scored a season-high 40 points but ended the game’s final moments in the locker room after suffering what appeared to be a non-contact injury. The extent of his injury was not immediately clear after the game.

The head coach Willie Green told reporters that Williamson was suffering from pain in his left leg and was scheduled to have an MRI on Wednesday.

The Pelicans will advance to Friday’s playoff game against the Sacramento Kings or Golden State Warriors. Their immediate concern, however, is Williamson’s health. The winner of Friday’s game will earn the No. 8 seed and a first-round matchup with the top seed. The losing season is over.

LeBron James and the Lakers are set for a rematch of last year's Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets.  (AP Photo/Gérald Herbert)

Lakers take big lead and delay Pelicans rally

The Pelicans took the lead during a fiery first quarter that saw both teams and double technical fouls on José Alvarado and D’Angelo Russell. New Orleans took a 34-26 lead into the second quarter. There, the Lakers took control.

The Pelicans scored first in the quarter before the Lakers took a 38-36 lead on a 12-0 run. At halftime, the Lakers led 60-50 and appeared to be on their way to victory. They led by as much as 73-55 midway through the third quarter.

But New Orleans fought back in the fourth quarter with a 9-0 run to cut the Lakers’ lead to 91-89. A Williamson dunk then tied the game at 93-93 with 3:53 left. But he left the game after a layup with 3:19 left and the game was tied at 95-95 and didn’t come back.

With Williamson sidelined, the Pelicans fought until the final moments of the game. Russell made a 3-pointer with 51.1 seconds remaining to extend the Lakers’ lead to 104-100. CJ McCollum responded with a floater with 38.2 seconds remaining to cut Los Angeles’ lead to two.

The Pelicans then forced LeBron James to take a fadeaway shot from the baseline that didn’t hit the rim. But Anthony Davis got the offensive rebound and was fouled. He made both of his free throws with 14.8 seconds left to extend the Lakers’ lead to 106-102. Los Angeles made the rest of its free throws to secure the victory.

Williamson’s big match wasted

Williamson was in the midst of a potentially career-changing game as he looked to make his first playoff appearance five seasons after being selected first overall in the NBA draft. He scored 10 points in each quarter, including two game-tying baskets in the fourth quarter that helped fuel the Pelicans’ rally.

He made several saves from James and finished the game with 40 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, a steal and a block while shooting 17 of 27 from the field. The Pelicans can still make the playoffs if they win Friday. But for now, it’s unclear whether Williamson – whose career has been repeatedly hampered by injuries – will be available should they do so.

Lakers get on the FT line and shoot 3-pointers in the playoffs

The Lakers won Tuesday’s game from beyond the arc and at the free throw line. They shot 14 of 35 (40%) from beyond the arc while limiting the Pelicans to a 9 of 30 (30%) effort.

They got to the free throw line 29 times and converted 26 times (89.7%) once they got there. Davis and Austin Reaves combined to make 6 of 6 free throws in the final minute of the game as the Pelicans tried to extend the game. By contract, the Pelicans shot 11 of 15 from the line for the game.

James overcame a poor shooting night (6 of 20) to lead the Lakers with 23 points, nine rebounds and nine assists. He shot 10 of 10 from the line. Davis added 20 points and 15 rebounds while hitting 8 of 10 free throws. Russell had 21 points and six assists and led the long-range effort with a 5-of-11 effort. He was one of four Lakers to make two more 3-pointers.

This victory prepares a formidable confrontation for Los Angeles. The Lakers were swept by the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals last year and lost all three regular season games this season. The Lakers last beat the Nuggets on December 16, 2022.

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