LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Afterward, they shook hands with an exhausted kind of pride.
If their win in Game 2 was emphatic, the one in Game 3 was business-like. LeBron James wiped his face wearily with a towel as the clock ran out on the Lakers’ 112-102 victory on Tuesday night — his best two-way performance with the team to give the Lakers a 2-1 edge on the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals.
Perhaps as much as any game since he’s been a Laker, James was at his peak. He bullied the Rockets in the lane, shoving them for space and finishing tough shots off the glass overhead. He pulled up plenty, too, hitting four of his first five 3-point attempts and leaving the Rockets to shrug as they jogged back the other way.
He finished with 36 points, 29 of them in the first half. It was enough of an effort to outpace 63 points from James Harden and Russell Westbrook, who bounced back from an underwhelming Game 2.
James was also fearsome on defense, finishing with four blocks in the third quarter alone. As the clock ran out on the third, Austin Rivers attempted to dash to the basket for a buzzer-beating lay-up — James swept in behind him like a falcon, swatting his shot off the glass and into oblivion.
James’ competitiveness came out in other ways, too: He bent the ear of head referee Marc Davis play after play, arguing every bump and whistle and wholly unwilling to surrender any inch of an advantage.
It was fitting that the Lakers’ sixth victory of this playoff run was also James’ 162nd, passing former Laker and current Sparks coach Derek Fisher for the all-time individual lead. It was the perfect night for coach Frank Vogel to reiterate his belief that James is the most valuable player in the NBA — when likely MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo had been sidelined as his Milwaukee team was eliminated by Miami.
“We didn’t play any defense in the first half, so this easily could’ve been a blowout if he wasn’t hitting big shot after big shot, so he was spectacular with that,” Vogel said. “When he’s protecting the rim on that end of the floor and then scoring 30 in a half, that’s just remarkable.”
But the Lakers also kept pulling away during James’ break in the fourth quarter thanks to defense. Houston couldn’t score on five of six straight possessions, including two steals by Anthony Davis, even with Harden on the floor and James off.
The first half was a lay-up line: The Lakers allowed the Rockets to run wild on their 10 turnovers before the break, scoring 12 points. Even though they 55 percent for the game, they still trailed at halftime by three points with Houston capitalizing on their mistakes.
“When we went to the locker room, we watched some film, and we had conversation right away on what we could do in the second half to get better and be better,” James said in his TNT interview. “And we was able to transfer that into the second half.”
After fully committing to go small, yanking JaVale McGee from the starting group for the third quarter, the Lakers defense held Houston to just 38 points in the second half. Davis was bruising as the Lakers’ small-ball center, scoring 26 points and grabbing a playoff-high 15 rebounds.
A surprise third star emerged too: the mythical “Playoff” Rajon Rondo, who scored 21 points and notched nine assists on 8 for 11 shooting. He nailed key 3-pointers in the closing minutes of the game.
“Playoff Rondo is real,” Davis said. “And he showed up tonight.”
With four-and-a-half minutes to go, the already shorthanded Rockets took another blow when Robert Covington collided with the Lakers’ Davis and fell, slamming his head against the court. He went to the locker room, and Houston was forced to play the remainder of the game without him and Danuel House (who missed the game for personal reasons).
James felt a special veteran delight that he continues to set records even in his 17th season. He’s never had four blocks in a quarter before Tuesday night. And while he said he isn’t where he would like to be physically, owing to the unique conditions of the bubble, that playoff edge finally seems set where it usually lies throughout his historic postseason career.
“From a rhythm standpoint, I am where I would like to be and I want to continue that,” he said. “It’s all about playing basketball efficient, being effective out on the floor with my minutes and doing whatever it takes to help our team win. I’ve always been a winning player and that’s all that matters to me.”