The Los Angeles Lakers will face the New Orleans Pelicans at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada in the semifinals of the NBA In-Season Tournament. Los Angeles escaped the quarterfinals with a win over Phoenix, while New Orleans went to Sacramento and grabbed a dominant victory to advance.Now, LeBron James and Zion Williamson will face off with a trip to the final on Saturday on the line.
Outside of the obvious storyline of Williamson and James meeting on the floor, this is a fascinating contest of strength against strength. New Orleans’ offense thrives on pressuring the rim. The Pelicans take 34.1% of their attempts in the restricted area and they shoot 65.7% on those attempts. By extension, New Orleans ranks 10th in free throws made per 100 field goal attempts (22.1). In short, they get to the rim and they get to the line, but Los Angeles does not allow that to happen.
The Lakers are eighth in frequency of attempts allowed within four feet of the basket (30.4%) and opponents shoot just 64.4% in the restricted area against them. Los Angeles is also very adept at defending without fouling, as they have allowed the second fewest made free throws per 100 opponent shot attempts (15.4). Something has to give in this matchup, and the improved health of the Pelicans could make the difference.
Despite the great numbers at the rim, New Orleans is only 15th in non-garbage time offensive efficiency with an average of 114.7 points per 100 possessions. It is 17th in halfcourt offensive efficiency with an average of 97.5 points per 100 plays. The biggest reason why that efficiency has been lacking is the absence of consistent shooting. On the season, the Pelicans are 20th in 3-point shooting (35.9%), but with CJ McCollum and Trey Murphy III back in the fold those numbers should improve. They have hit only 35.8% of their 3-point attempts since McCollum’s return, but the team did go 14-of-31 from deep in the quarterfinal win over Sacramento and McCollum and Murphy combined to go 6-of-13 from deep.
In reality, how New Orleans defends Los Angeles will decide which team will play on Saturday. The biggest advantage the Lakers have is their ability to score in transition. Los Angeles ranks eighth in overall transition offensive efficiency (130.1). Where it thrives is in transition off of live rebounds, where 32.0% of live rebounds lead to a transition play and they average 121.7 points per 100 plays. New Orleans is 22nd in both overall defensive efficiency in transition (129.5) and defensive efficiency off live rebounds (125.5).
The Pelicans do not have a true match up for James on defense either, and that will cause a problem. James took over the Lakers’ win over the Suns on Tuesday and finished with 31 points, 8 rebounds and 11 assists on 12-of-25 shooting. He went after mismatch after mismatch constantly, and his play down the stretch led Los Angeles to Las Vegas. New Orleans’ best defender is Herb Jones, who gives up two inches and nearly 50 pounds to James. At DraftKings, James’ points, rebounds and assists prop is set at 42.5 as of this morning and that is certainly a number he could surpass when looking at this matchup on paper.
That is what decides this contest for me. New Orleans has no true match for James on its roster, and because of that Los Angeles should be able to dominate the clutch minutes like they did against Phoenix. The Lakers are strong enough down low that they can stymie an offense that lives in the restricted area as well. This should be a tight contest, but the Lakers ultimately move on to the final on Saturday night.
Lean: Lakers (-1.5); UNDER 230