LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida. – Already in the first quarter, LeBron James exuded a meanness that he seems to keep in reserve for these moments.
Closeout games, he says, are the hardest games to win. But when he hit one of his three 3-pointers on Saturday night to give his team a 16-point lead just six minutes later, he snorted as he staggered back to the bench.
There would be no comeback on Saturday night. Not against the Lakers, who not only outwitted Houston in a 119-96 win in Game 5 to advance to the Western Conference Finals, but also played their own smallball style in a superior way.
In the fourth quarter, they crushed Houston by a whopping 30 points and saw the ghost leaking from their fourth-placed opponent.
James took center stage, scoring 29 points with 11 rebounds and 7 assists, but six Lakers scored double digits in total.
While the Lakers spent the last minutes cheering on the end of their couch, Houston’s stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook sat with a thousand-foot gaze. Harden had 30 points, but Westbrook only had 10.
Going to the Western Conference Finals marks a return to glory, a decade in the making for the Lakers, whose 16th Championship came in 2010 when they last reached that round. But as always, Lakers seasons are measured in championships, and soon the team’s attention will shift to the winner of the Clippers-Nuggets series, which could end Sunday afternoon.
James is no stranger to these late stages of the season, but to Anthony Davis, it was the farthest he’s ever been. The summer addition of the Lakers’ award looked unbalanced with 13 points and 6 turnovers, but made up for it with a defensive effort, including 11 rebounds as the Lakers took a 50-31 lead.
The Rockets went out kicking and screaming – literally in the case of Russell Westbrook, who got into a shouting match in the fourth quarter with William Rondo, Rajon Rondo’s brother, who, according to ESPN, waved ‘goodbye’ when the Lakers lead by more then rose 20 points. Westbrook had to be stopped by an official as William Rondo was asked by security to leave the arena. The NBA has rules of conduct for fans that guests must read before every game.
But Westbrook and Houston’s troubles don’t start until after shutdown. It seemed to end a once promising era for the franchise, which played four times in the second round under coach Mike D’Antoni, whose contract expires after this season. After fully committing to their micro-sized roster, the Rockets have tough off-season issues, including over $ 80 million for two stars who didn’t get them to the finals.
Perhaps because the Lakers expected so much desperation from the Rockets, they came up with an extra dose of pep: As James attacked and their 3-point shooters fire, they quickly rocketed the scoreboard to a double-digit lead.