As the only 3-0 team in the NBA in-season tournament so far, the Los Angeles Lakers are out to finish perfect in group play when they welcome the Utah Jazz to Southern California on Tuesday.
The Lakers are not the only team without a loss in the tournament — six teams are at 2-0 heading into Tuesday’s games — but they can be the first to advance to the knockout rounds with a perfect mark.
It’s not as if the 8-6 Lakers have necessarily prioritized winning the new in-season trophy. It has been all about timing, with their turnaround from a slow start coming as the in-season tournament arrived.
In fact, their ascent started in the second half of their tournament opener at Phoenix on Nov. 10, when they turned 67 second-half points into a 122-119 victory over the Suns. Los Angeles outscored Phoenix 33-23 in the fourth quarter to end a three-game losing streak.
Tournament victories over the Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers followed, giving the Lakers a tourney-best plus-42 point differential.
Los Angeles prepped for Tuesday’s final group-play game with a 105-104 non-tournament victory over the Houston Rockets on Sunday. LeBron James scored a season-best 37 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter.
“He’s doing it all for us and it’s our job to try to complement him and help him out with our shot-making or playmaking,” teammate Anthony Davis (27 points) said of James. “It doesn’t even feel like he’s 38.”
Added Lakers coach Darvin Ham: “(It was) the LeBron we’ve all come to know and love over these 21 years.”
Los Angeles’ Austin Reaves scored 17 points, with nine in the final period, as he continues to find a comfort zone after being switched into a reserve role. Reaves’ 31-foot 3-pointer with 24.2 seconds broke a tie and helped the Lakers edge the Rockets.
The Jazz enter off a 140-137 double-overtime defeat to the Phoenix Suns on Sunday in Salt Lake City. It was Utah’s second consecutive high-scoring home loss to the Suns, who won 131-128 on Friday.
Lauri Markkanen set season highs with 38 points and 17 rebounds for the Jazz on Sunday after scoring 21 points with a season-low two rebounds on Friday.
“I was really proud of the team and the way they fought and hung in there the entire time,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said of Sunday’s close call. “And there we are, down one with under a minute left at home. I think if you had said before the game, we’ll fast forward to that point, we would have loved to be in that situation. Those are the situations we’re looking for.”
Like the Lakers, the Jazz aren’t having the season they were looking for, yet they have found success in the in-season tournament at 2-1. It could have been a pair of 3-0 teams meeting Tuesday if Utah could have found a way to pull off the victory Friday.
“It really is the little things,” Hardy said. “The margin between winning and losing in this league is slim. … Good teams win close games.”