LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers held off a furious late rally to beat the New Orleans Pelicans 110-106 on Tuesday and book a first-round NBA playoff clash with the defending champion Denver Nuggets.

Four-time NBA champion James scored 23 points with nine rebounds, nine assists and three steals to lead the Lakers in the play-in game victory that secured the seventh seed in the Western Conference.

The Pelicans, rocked by a late injury to star forward Zion Williamson, will have another chance to advance on Friday when they take on the Sacramento Kings.

The Kings ended the Golden State Warriors’ playoff aspirations with a resounding 118-94 victory in the second Western Conference play-in game.

At 39, James is in the playoffs for the 17th time in 21 seasons. He’ll get another shot at Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets, who swept the Lakers in the Western Conference finals on their way to the title last season.

Williamson scored 40 points and keyed the Pelicans’ rally from an 18-point third-quarter deficit.

His alley-oop dunk tied it at 93-93 but after he drove for a basket that made it 95-95 with 3:19 remaining, Williamson grimaced in pain and was soon out of the game, throwing a towel in disgust as he headed to the locker room for good.

The Pelicans kept the pressure on. They tied it twice more, but D’Angelo Russell’s three-pointer with 51.3 seconds remaining pushed the Lakers lead to four points and Los Angeles, with a timely rebound and a pair of free throws from Anthony Davis, held on for the win.

Russell drilled five of the Lakers’ 14 three-pointers on the way to 21 points. Davis scored 20 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in the victory, which followed the Lakers’ win over the Pelicans on the final day of the regular season on Sunday.

“We understood after how we had played the last game that they were going to give us everything they had—the whole kitchen sink and the toolbox and they did that,” said James.

“So it was a gritty win for us and we punched our ticket to the post-season.”

The Lakers will open their best-of-seven series against second-seeded Denver on Saturday.

“We like where we are, we like where the spirit of our group is,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “Everybody is excited about this challenge.”

Pelicans coach Willie Green said Williamson, who also had 11 rebounds and five assists, left the game with “left leg soreness.”

“He’s going to get some imaging tomorrow and we’ll figure out more,” Green said.

The 23-year-old power forward, whose career has been hindered by injuries, remains in search of his first playoff appearance since he entered the league as the top pick in the 2019 draft.

‘Total Domination’ 

His status will be key against a Kings team riding high after their blowout victory over the Warriors and Stephen Curry.

“It was total domination,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr admitted. “The offensive rebounds early in the game set a tone. They didn’t let us get into our offense.”

The Warriors narrowed a 16-point deficit to four at halftime, but were helpless as the Kings pulled away again in the second half.

Keegan Murray led the Kings’ scoring with 32 points. De’Aaron Fox added 24 and Domantas Sabonis had 16 points and 12 rebounds.

Curry shook off a slow start that saw him score just five points in the first half to finish with 22. But Klay Thompson failed to score a point as he missed all 10 of his shots.

Golden State surrendered 15 offensive rebounds and coughed up 16 turnovers in the face of the Kings’ energetic defense as Sacramento eased the memory of their heartbreaking loss to the Warriors in game seven of their first-round series last season.

“It doesn’t take away what they did to us last year at all,” Murray said. “That still stings to this day, but it kind of peels the Band-Aid off a little bit. They got us last year. We got them this year.”

Pierre Daccache, with AFP