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LeBron James, Anthony Davis prove Lakers are still title contenders with In-Season Tournament title

It may not be the title they ultimately want, but LeBron James and Anthony Davis showed once more they can still bring it for the Lakers at the highest level.

NBA: In Season Tournament-Indiana Pacers at Los Angeles Lakers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

When LeBron James and Anthony Davis came together in Los Angeles in the summer of 2019, visions of titles and big performances in big games were certainly some of the grand ideas the pair had dreamt up.

Saturday certainly wasn’t the type of title they were aiming for — especially considering the tournament was hardly anything more than a farfetched idea in the mind of David Stern — but you could hardly tell by the level the two played at.

Injuries and things outside of their control have robbed the two of more than the one title they have. This weekend, then, served as a reminder to everyone, perhaps themselves included, of just how good they can be when the lights shine brightest.

On Thursday, it was LeBron who took center stage, methodically decimating the Pelicans in one of the most lopsided games of the season. On Saturday, it was Davis who was at the center of the gameplan, fully executing a gameplan devised to dismantle the Pacers from the inside out.

The end result of a weekend in Vegas was a $500,000 prize, the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament title, another MVP for LeBron and some affirmation of what this team can still be led by their superstar duo.

“That’s what he do, man,” LeBron said in his walk-off interview with Spectrum. “We’ve got a great 1-2 punch. I took care of the semi-finals game, he took care of the finals game. That’s what it’s all about, holding each other accountable.”

This wasn’t the first time LeBron and AD have responded in big moments and, if everything goes according to plan, it won’t be the last time this season either. It’s not even the biggest stage these two have ascended to in purple and gold.

But so much has happened since their rapid ascension in their first season together, most of it out of their control. A global pandemic played both a role in how the team won the title inside a bubble and ultimately played a big role in the rushed season that followed.

Injuries to both have kept them off the court in recent seasons and limited the amount of games they’ve spent together. Despite AD now being a teammate with LeBron for longer than Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh in Miami or Kevin Love or Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, all four of those have played more games alongside LeBron due to injuries.

The surest glimpse of something still being in the tank for them still, though, came last postseason. A clearly hobbled James was pulled along by a deeper Lakers team than perhaps ever before and a version of Davis playing at maybe the best level of his career.

The Western Conference Finals was the ceiling for that team in that moment, but it was enough of a spark of belief that the Lakers ran it back this year. In a cruel twist of irony, injuries to everyone but LeBron and AD have handicapped this team, but this In-Season Tournament run came at a perfect time with the roster nearly completely healthy and looking to find their footing.

While so many other Lakers stepped up in big ways over the past week — none more than Austin Reaves both against Phoenix and in the final — at the center of it all was Davis and LeBron, once more showing what they could be together.

“We’ve been doing it together for a long time,” Davis said. “For years now. You just figure it out. We know each other’s tendencies, what we like to do. Obviously in crunch time, you get to our infamous pick and roll where it’s tough to stop. We feed off one another. Thursday, LeBron had it going. Tonight, it was me and he still did his thing.”

This Lakers team has aspirations of a title bigger than one won in Vegas. But presented with the opportunity to reassert themselves as one of the league’s top contenders over the last three games, the Lakers took full advantage.

If last year’s playoff run was the taste test of what this team could be, the Lakers are starting to show what the finished product could become. Matched up against the top offense in the league and the league’s quickest-rising star, the Lakers suffocated the Pacers and Tyrese Haliburton.

Saturday marked a number of lows for the Pacers offensively, including a season-worst 36.8 field goal percentage. The 24.4% they shot from the 3-point line was their fourth-lowest mark and the 109 points was their third-lowest.

They came into the night with an effective field goal percentage of 58.6% and an offensive rating of 123.5, both tops in the league. The Lakers held them to 42.1% and an offensive rating of 102.8.

Indiana Pacers v Los Angeles Lakers: Championship - 2023 NBA In-Season Tournament Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

This wasn’t a two-man show on either end of the floor. Cam Reddish continues to impress and draw the praise of his teammates, particularly defensively. Jarred Vanderbilt is still rounding into form but showing more and more of what makes him so valuable. Taurean Prince, Max Christie, Rui Hachimura and Taurean Prince offer the Lakers a dearth of wing options that have never been afforded to a LeBron-AD team.

But LeBron and AD are just as much at the center of what this team does nightly to offenses as they are on the other end.

“Anytime I step on the floor, I know I’m the anchor of the defense…That’s my job,” Davis said. “I’m constantly talking with the guys. Me and Bron have great chemistry as far as our defensive schemes and what we like to do as the four and the five…It’s my job to be that anchor and lead the team on the defensive end.”

Davis has been afforded that type of leadership over the Lakers’ defense for a number of reasons, none more so than his otherworldly talents on that end. It’s a level of freedom and responsibility, though, not always afforded to LeBron’s teammates throughout his career.

This is a different LeBron, though. While he’s fighting off Father Time, he’s also not the player he once was. This is a different superstar teammate than LeBron’s had, too. Davis is one of the best defenders of his generation, one that may not exist in the current NBA.

The pair have come together at the right time, giving an aging LeBron the extra boost he needs night in and night out. And LeBron won’t undersell how important Davis has been, responding with “everything” when asked what the big man has meant to his career.

“To be able to get a young, hungry alpha male to just go out there and do the things that he do,” LeBron said, “it’s definitely given me an opportunity to be able not only watch as he’s continued to grow but also be able to try to inspire him as well as he continues to grow in his career and vice versa. I feel like when we’re on the floor together, we’re healthy, we know what we’re capable of doing.

“We’ve just played too many games together, we’ve shared too many moments together, played in too many big moments together to fail each other. It’s been everything for me, especially at the later stage of my career.”

Saturday was a big game. Look no further than the reactions from LeBron and AD late as pair all but sealed the win as proof. And it’s another notch in the belt for this latest Lakers superstar duo.

The titles haven’t been as plentiful, perhaps, as they had envisioned. But the In-Season Tournament showed that, when the big moments come around, these two are still capable of answering the bell.

You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.

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