NBA play-in: Lakers fend off Pelicans rally, advance to face Nuggets; Zion Williamson leaves late with injury

The Pelicans will now take on the Sacramento Kings, who beat the Warriors in their play-in game on Tuesday night

New Orleans Pelicans star Zion Williamson gave the Los Angeles Lakers his best shot Tuesday.

It wasn't enough. The Lakers overcame a late Pelicans rally and a big game from Williamson for a 110-106 win in New Orleans in the NBA play-in tournament. With the win, the Lakers secured the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference playoffs and a first-round matchup with the reigning champion Denver Nuggets.

Zion scores 40, leaves game with injury

The Lakers built and blew an 18-point lead only to hold off a late rally by the Pelicans for the win. Williamson scored a season-high 40 points, but finished the game's final moments in the locker room after suffering what appeared to be a non-contact injury.

Head coach Willie Green told reporters that Williamson was dealing with left-leg soreness and The Athletic reported that it was a hamstring injury.

The Pelicans move on to Friday's elimination game with the loss. They'll host the Sacramento Kings, who rolled over the Golden State Warriors in their play-in game on Tuesday night. The Pelicans' immediate concern, however, is Williamson's health. The winner of Friday's game will secure the No. 8 seed and a first-round matchup with the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder. The loser's season is over.

LeBron James and the Lakers are set for a rematch of last year's Western Conference finals with the Denver Nuggets. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Lakers build big lead, hold off Pelicans rally

The Pelicans took the early advantage in a fiery first quarter that saw runs by both teams and double technical fouls on Jose Alvarado and D'Angelo Russell. New Orleans took a 34-26 lead into the second quarter. There, the Lakers took control.

The Pelicans scored first in the quarter before the Lakers seized a 38-36 lead with a 12-0 run. By halftime, the Lakers led, 60-50 and appeared on their way to coasting to victory. They led by as much as 73-55 midway through the third quarter.

But New Orleans punched back in the fourth quarter with a 9-0 run to cut the Lakers lead to 91-89. A Williamson dunk then tied the game at 93-93 with 3:53 remaining. But he left the game after a layup with 3:19 remaining and the game tied at 95-95 and didn't return.

With Williamson sidelined, the Pelicans battled until the game's final moments. Russell hit a 3-pointer with 51.1 seconds left to extend a Lakers lead to 104-100. C.J. McCollum responded with a floater with 38.2 seconds remaining to cut the Los Angeles lead to two.

The Pelicans then forced LeBron James into a fadeaway shot from the baseline that didn't hit the rim. But Anthony Davis secured the offensive rebound and was fouled. He hit both of his free throws with 14.8 seconds remaining to extend the Lakers lead to 106-102. Los Angeles hit the rest of its free throws down the stretch to secure the win.

Williamson's big game spoiled

Williamson was in the midst of a potentially career-altering game as he sought to advance to his first playoff game five seasons after being selected first overall in the 2019 NBA Draft. He scored 10 points in each quarter, including the pair of game-tying buckets in the fourth quarter that helped fuel the Pelicans rally.

Zion Williamson was dominant until his late-game injury.  (Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Zion Williamson was dominant until his late-game injury. (Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

He came up with multiple stops of James and finished the game with 40 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, one steal and one block while shooting 17 of 27 from the field. The Pelicans can still advance to the playoffs with a win Friday. But for now, it's not clear if Williamson — whose career has repeatedly been stunted by injury — will be available in the event that they do.

Lakers ride FT line, 3-point shooting into playoffs

The Lakers won Tuesday's game from beyond the arc and at the free throw line. They shot 14 of 35 (40%) from 3-point distance while limiting the Pelicans to a 9-of-30 (30%) effort.

They made it to the free throw line 29 times and converted 26 times (89.7%) when they got there. Davis and Austin Reaves combined to hit 6 of 6 free throws in the game's final minute as the Pelicans attempted to extend the game. The Pelicans shot 11 of 15 at the line for the game.

James overcame a poor shooting night (6 of 20) to lead the Lakers with 23 points, nine rebounds and nine assists. He hit all 10 of his free throws. Davis added 20 points and 15 rebounds while hitting 8 of 10 free throws. Russell tallied 21 points and six assists and led the effort from long distance with a 5-of-11 performance. He was one of four Lakers to hit two or more 3-pointers.

The win sets up a daunting matchup for Los Angeles. The Lakers were swept by the Nuggets in last year's Western Conference finals and lost all three regular-season matchups this season. The Lakers last beat the Nuggets on Dec. 16, 2022.