LeBron James and Anthony Davis lead Lakers to NBA in-season tournament title

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 9: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates.

The skepticism had long disappeared, replaced with the kind of toughness, focus and intensity that’s traditionally reserved for the playoffs.

The NBA in-season tournament injected life into the Lakers, forcing them to accelerate their process to meet the challenge.

The prize money, $500,000 to each player on the winning team, might have been the fuel early, but by Saturday’s finals, pure competition had organically added to the stakes.

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Forget gimmicks. Forget the bright courts, the point-differential tiebreakers and the prize pool. This was everything the NBA could’ve wanted.

LeBron James embraced the creation in his 21st season, controlling games like he did in the first 15 years of his career. And Anthony Davis, a player criticized for a lack of toughness and fire, passionately dominated.

He screamed to the roof and flexed as he stomped toward fans in the first row of the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The party would soon start.

The Lakers were champs — champs with fatter pockets.

Davis scored 41 and grabbed 20 rebounds, the best player on the floor, as the Lakers beat Indiana 123-109 to win the inaugural NBA Cup, clinching the $500,000 prize for each player.

James, the tournament MVP, added 24 and Austin Reaves scored 28 in a game where the Lakers’ defense smothered the league’s top offense while feasting on one of the softest interior defenses.

The Lakers scored 86 points in the paint — making only four shots outside of the lane.

Davis began limping midway through the third quarter before coach Darvin Ham took him out. He received treatment on the bench and returned, but he played with a pronounced limp. Later in the fourth, the injury subsided, and Davis scowled after his blocked shot led to a Cam Reddish dunk.

He wasn’t the only Laker fighting through the pain.

Pregame, Reaves was in considerable discomfort inside the Lakers’ locker room after spending much of the last two days in bed dealing with chills, congestion and body aches.

He slowly ate chicken and plain white rice, his first meal of the day, as he talked about how miserably he was feeling.

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He looked pale. And then he went out to play.

Reaves scored 22 in the first half, his most in a half ever, while he conserved energy between each possession.

Despite trailing by double digits for part of the third quarter, Indiana never folded. A buzzer-beating three ignited a quick run to guarantee crunch time would tighten.

The Lakers got a massive three-pointer from Reddish in the fourth to start a 13-0 run that closed the door and ensured the win, the Lakers defense again clamping down.

As the horn sounded and “I Love LA” filled the arena, the Lakers celebrated in the middle of the court.

The league created a competition, a title.

The Lakers, 17-time NBA champs, won that too.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.