NEW ORLEANS – LeBron James looked to be in playoff form when he hit deep 3s, delivered an accurate, no-look, behind-the-back pass out of a double team to Alex Caruso under the basket, or flipped an alley-oop lob to Anthony Davis while running a fast break.
But when James used a spin move on the dribble to convert a lay-up against two defenders in the fourth quarter, he landed on Nickeil Alexander-Walker's foot, fell to the floor and remained on his back for several seconds before checking out of the game for good.
“I'll be fine,” James insisted after his game-high 25 points led the Los Angeles Lakers to a 110-98 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday night.
While the victory was the Lakers’ fifth straight, it was not enough to pull them high enough in the Western Conference standings to skip the NBA’s new play-in format involving the seventh through 10th seeds.
Portland beat Denver to finish sixth, meaning the Lakers would have to win one of up to two play-in games to secure a regular playoff spot as either a seventh or eighth seed.
James called his latest injury “a tweak” of the high right ankle sprain that sidelined him for 26 of the Lakers' final 30 regular-season games.
“I'll be in the lineup on Wednesday,” James predicted, referring to the Lakers' play-in opener against eighth-seeded Golden State. “The time is now and I'm ready for it.”
Davis scored 14 points and Andre Drummond had 13 points and 13 rebounds for the Lakers, who played starters and top substitutes between 21 and 30 minutes in a victory that would have helped them finish sixth had Portland lost.
“I don't look at our seeding. It doesn't matter,” James said, noting that he and Davis both missed significant time with injures this season. “Obviously we know we wanted to play a lot better this season, but injuries took a toll on our team. We're finally starting to get whole, starting to feel a little bit better about our situation.”
Willie Hernangomez had 19 points and 13 rebounds, and Naji Marshall added 18 points — including a turnaround, half-court heave off the glass as the first half ended — for New Orleans.
The Lakers never trailed, but had some trouble pulling away from an undermanned Pelicans squad missing top scorers Zion Williamson (left hand fracture) and Brandon Ingram (left ankle sprain).
“We had some important guys out with injury, so it was just another opportunity for other guys. Everybody was working really hard," Hernangomez said. “I’m really happy with the opportunity that I had.”
With about five minutes left in the third quarter, Pelicans forward James Johnson had a chance to tie it at 76 with three free throws, but missed them all.
Soon after, Davis made a pair of free throws and followed that with a dunk on the next possession, igniting a 16-3 Lakers run to close the quarter in which Davis added a reverse layup and another driving lay-in as he was fouled.
Caruso chipped in with a driving floater from the lane and a 3, and the Lakers took a 91-76 lead into the final period.
Lakers: Dennis Schroder scored 12 points and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 10. ... Shot 11 of 35 from 3-point range. ... Scored 62 points in the paint. ... Jared Dudley played most of the last five minutes, his first action since March 3, when he elected to rehabilitate a right medial collateral ligament tear without surgery. He grabbed two rebounds but did not score.
Pelicans: Pelicans second-year center Jaxson Hayes, who had 10 points, hurt his right leg badly enough in the second half that he had to be helped off the court by two teammates while not putting any weight on the injured leg. ... In addition to the absences of Williamson and Ingram, New Orleans also was without starting center Steven Adams (sprained toe) and starting point guard Lonzo Ball (sprained right thumb). ... Alexander-Walker scored 14 and Eric Bledsoe added 13 points. ... Turned the ball over 21 times, leading to 23 Lakers points.
Dudley described the Lakers' bid to win an NBA title from a play-in seeding “will be the hardest challenge any team has ever had in NBA history."
But he then added, "We’re up for it, man. We’re the defending champs. They got to worry about us. We’re getting healthy at the right time and no one wants to see a healthy Laker team.”
Lakers: Host Golden State on Wednesday night in the Western Conference play-in with the winner taking the seventh seed and a spot against Phoenix and the loser having to play another game to determine the eighth seed.
Pelicans: Enter the offseason looking for ways to improve a team that played entertaining and competitive basketball, but struggled with injuries to key players and dropped too many close games to make the postseason.
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