LeBron James outgunned Zion Williamson as the Los Angeles Lakers returned to action just 24 hours after the searing emotion of Kobe Bryant’s memorial service.
James, who earlier Tuesday said he was “emotionally a wreck” following Bryant’s death last month in a helicopter crash, scored a season-high 40 points in a 118-109 win over the New Orleans Pelicans at the Staples Center.
On Monday, the venue had hosted a star-studded memorial to Bryant as the Lakers and Los Angeles bade a wrenching farewell to one of the city’s most beloved sporting figures.
However, James and the Lakers swiftly got back into the winning groove on Tuesday in a free-flowing contest against a Pelicans side led by number-one draft pick Williamson.
The hulking 19-year-old New Orleans star once again served notice of his talents with a 29-point display as the Pelicans pushed the Lakers all the way. James admitted afterwards he had been impressed by Williamson’s performance after a Lakers win which extended their lead at the top of the Western Conference.
“Every game is going to be an opportunity for him to get better and a learning experience for him,” James said of Williamson.
“But the kid is special man. They got a good one in him,” added James, who also had eight rebounds, six assists and seven turnovers in his 34 minutes on court.
Anthony Davis added 21 points for the Lakers with Danny Green (17 points) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (15) also reaching double figures.
Former Lakers power forward Brandon Ingram led the Pelicans scoring with 34 points. The Denver Nuggets are five games behind the Lakers in second place in the Western standings after cruising past the Detroit Pistons 115-98 on Tuesday.
50th win for Bucks
Elsewhere, Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 19 points as the Milwaukee Bucks bagged their 50th win of the season with a 108-97 defeat of the Toronto Raptors.
In a potential preview of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bucks laid down a marker with a dominant second-half display to claim victory at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena.
Victory was sweet for the Bucks, who lost to the Raptors in last season’s Eastern Conference finals at the same venue despite being the top seeds heading into the playoffs. Antetokounmpo later admitted last season’s game-six defeat at the venue had preoccupied him.
“You always remember the last time you play here, the problems you had,” Antetokounmpo said. “It was definitely on my mind.”
The Raptors had led 52-50 at halftime, but Milwaukee took a grip on the contest with a superb third-quarter performance to open up a double-digit lead. The Bucks outscored the hosts 34-19 in the third, and although the Raptors closed to within seven points with two minutes remaining, a superb three-pointer from Antetokounmpo to make it 104-94 helped the visitors close out the win.
“We just come out and try to do our job,” Antetokounmpo said. “We have a winning culture. It doesn’t matter if you are hurt, or tired - the next guy up is ready to go. Everybody wants to play, everybody wants to win, and that’s why we win games.”
Reigning NBA MVP Antetokounmpo finished with 19 points, 19 rebounds and eight assists with four turnovers.
Khris Middleton led the scoring for the Bucks with 22 points, eight rebounds and three assists. Eric Bledsoe (17 points) and Brook Lopez (15) also cracked double figures for Milwaukee. The Bucks are already assured of their playoff berth after building the best record in the NBA at 50-8 to lead the Eastern Conference ahead of second-placed Toronto.
The Raptors meanwhile fell to 42-16 but remain firmly on track for a postseason spot. Cameroonian international Pascal Siakam led the scoring for Toronto with 22 points while Fred VanVleet had 14 points. The Boston Celtics remain in third place in the Eastern Conference after a 118-106 defeat of the Portland Trail Blazers. Jayson Tatum scored 36 points for the Celtics in the win.
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