LAS VEGAS -- The NBA's inaugural in-season tournament has provided an ideal platform for LeBron James -- weeks shy of his 39th birthday -- to prove that he is still in his prime.
James poured in 30 points and added eight assists and five rebounds to earn the Lakers a date with the Indiana Pacers, who beat the Milwaukee Bucks earlier in the day, in Saturday's championship game.
And to think, heading into this past offseason, James thought about walking away from the game and the competition, where he clearly still thrives.
"If you decide to retire, or whatever the case may be, you're not a part of it anymore, so it wouldn't be me leaving it on the table because I would have never had the table set," James told ESPN. "But I'm happy that I'm here. This is a pretty cool moment, and let's see if we can capitalize on it. It's been good. It's been dope."
The Lakers star, in his 21st season, has been so good for so long that performances like the one he had against the Pelicans, when he made 9 of 12 shots (including 4-for-4 from 3), committed zero turnovers and registered a plus-minus of plus-36 in the 23 minutes he played, sometimes seem ordinary for him.
However, taking a moment to consider that James is closer in age to Shaquille O'Neal, who has been retired since 2011 and was sitting courtside for the tournament, than his teammate Austin Reavesand the things he continues to do on the basketball court seem even more incomprehensible.
Like in the span of 61 seconds in the second quarter, when James hit three 3-pointers -- the last qualifying as a heat check as he launched it from 30 feet out with the crowd anticipating his shot as soon as he touched the ball past half court -- to start to put Los Angeles in control.
"You saw LeBron on full display," Pelicans coach Willie Green said. "He understands these moments."
It was reminiscent of James' first meeting with Zion Williamson in 2020, when James scored 11 straight points in the third quarter -- including going 3-for-3 from 3 -- to break the game open and assert his dominance over the then-rookie sensation.
Williamson finished Thursday's game with 13 points, 2 rebounds and 3 assists.
"I got to be better," Williamson said. "I got to be more aggressive finding my shot. I got to do more things to get my team going. I think I was too laid-back tonight."
James' outside shooting flurry, as notable as it was, might have been overshadowed by his defensive effort.
He lined up to take a charge on the 23-year-old Williamson barreling through the lane in the first quarter then drew two more in the second quarter, putting his body -- which has already logged the most minutes in the history of the league -- on the line.
"Any time your best player sacrifices his body ... especially with Zion coming down the paint, it sets a tone," Reaves said. "That shows to everybody else how locked in he is to win this."
James was asked by a reporter whether he's too old to be drawing contact like that.
"Listen man, not for that 500, I ain't," he said, referencing the $500,000 per player cash prize for the tournament's winners.
All told, James had 18 points in the second quarter, helping Los Angeles build a 67-54 advantage at the half.
The floodgates were open by the third, with the Lakers starting the second half on a 22-6 run -- punctuated by James' alley-oop pass to Anthony Davis to bring Los Angeles' lead up to 90-60. Heading into the fourth, after a 43-17 third-quarter drubbing, the Lakers led 110-71.
While James led the way, Los Angeles was sharp in almost every aspect of the game. The Lakers shot 17-for-35 from 3 (48.6%), outrebounded the Pelicans 59-42 and shared the ball all night, racking up 31 assists on 47 made field goals.
Five other Lakers scored in double digits, led by Davis' 16 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocks. James' stat line made history, as he became the first player to record 30 or more points, 5 or more rebounds and 5 or more assists in 23 minutes or fewer.
After starting the season 3-5, Los Angeles is rolling heading into Saturday's championship game with the first-ever NBA Cup and a significant financial incentive on the line. The Lakers have won three games in a row and are 7-3 in their last 10, moving up to No. 4 in the Western Conference standings.
"This time of the year you tend to -- you don't want to admit it -- but teams tend to sleepwalk through some of these games," Lakers coach Darvin Ham said before the game. "So for the league to infuse this tournament at this point and time of the year, I thought it was brilliant. ... Now being here in Vegas, it's definitely a really thick electricity that's happening that's reverberating all the way through the arena, through the teams. Everybody is excited to try to give it their best shot."
Now James and the Lakers have a shot at another championship this weekend.
"We've got to finish our breakfast on Saturday," James said, referencing a Jay-Z lyric that describes completing a task. "That's the most important thing."
And then Los Angeles can resume its pursuit of the NBA championship in June.
"We are just trying to build a rhythm and be the best team we can be and put our best foot forward on a daily basis," Ham said. "The tournament just happens to align with what we got going on in general."