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LeBron James and Lakers beat Jazz and clinch NBA play-in spot

The big story waited in Los Angeles, where the road-weary Lakers hoped to get to at some point after their game with the Jazz, provided yet another snowstorm didn’t sabotage their itinerary.

Wednesday, the Lakers will finish off a five-game road trip in unique fashion — playing at home in Los Angeles — in a road game against the Clippers.

It’s a big game. But, for the Lakers, it couldn’t be the biggest.

They had work in front of them.

That, as much as anything, is what the Lakers had to fight Tuesday in Utah against the short-handed Jazz. “Trap” is a word players in the Lakers’ locker room used pregame and by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, it was no longer just a prediction.

After seemingly putting the game on ice, the Lakers were in a fight to hang on to a win, playing high-leverage possessions on a night when they all could have used a break.

Former Laker Damian Jones hit two free throws with 11 seconds to cap a 10-0 run to force overtime, the Lakers with a foot on the team plane before the fourth quarter wrapped.

And with the Lakers needing a stop in the final 40 seconds of overtime, Talen Horton-Tucker drove right past Jarred Vanderbilt, whom Darvin Ham played for the first time since the third quarter.

Horton-Tucker was fouled and hit the first free throw to tie the score 133-133 but missed the second, opening up a crack for LeBron James on the next possession.

After a timeout, James spun through the defense and scored on a right-handed layup to put the Lakers up by two with 27.1 seconds remaining, the team sealing the 135-133 win win with one last stop on a missed Horton-Tucker jumper.

It’s the Lakers’ 41st win of the season, assuring the team will finish the year no worse than .500. With their win, the Lakers clinched at least a spot in the postseason play-in tournament.

James scored 37 points, Austin Reaves had 28 and Anthony Davis finished with 21 to go with 14 rebounds.

Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) and Utah Jazz center Damian Jones (15) reach for a rebound during the second half on Tuesday in Salt Lake City.

(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Playing with heavy legs against a team of players with plenty to prove in terms of their future in the league, the game was anything but easy.

Horton-Tucker, whom the Lakers traded to Utah before the season, led the Jazz with 23 points with Jordan Clarkson, All-Star Lauri Markkanen and rookie center Walker Kessler all missing for Utah. Horton-Tucker relentlessly attacked the Lakers.

Double-digit leads routinely got cut in half, the Lakers forced to fight for every bucket and every stop despite their major talent advantage.

The Lakers, citing precaution, didn’t have point guard D’Angelo Russell because of left foot soreness. Russell missed the second half of the Lakers’ win in Houston Sunday.

“Not to force it,” Ham said pregame of the Lakers’ decision-making. “It’s something that, if can we buy it some time, he’ll come out on the right side of it.”

And while their stars carried the way in the first half, neither James nor Davis could give the Lakers a necessary cushion to keep the Jazz from fighting.

James had a chance to win it at the end of regulation, but his driving left-handed shot rimmed out.

“It’s the end of a long road trip and guys on the floor played a ton of minutes,” Ham said. “But we found a way.”

Next comes the Clippers, the two teams knotted in the standings with plenty of playoff implications. But postgame in the Lakers locker room in Utah, there weren’t any indicators about who would be able to play in that game on the second night of a back-to-back.

James said he exceeded the 30- to 32-minute playing plan Tuesday because the Lakers needed overtime. He said playing 38 minutes didn’t help his injured foot.

Davis hasn’t played in back-to-back games since early November and is still managing the stress reaction he dealt with in his foot. Reaves suffered a shoulder stinger and had ice on his right quad postgame. “We’ll assess them in the morning,” Ham said.

The Lakers are seventh in the West, tied with the Clippers, who own the tie-breaker.

Asked if the standings would determine whether the Lakers play or sit players, Ham said it wouldn’t. “We’ve got a mission of our own,” he said.

This story originally appeared on LA Times

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