LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — As early as the first quarter, LeBron James emanated a meanness that he seems to hold in reserve for these moments.
Closeout games, he’s said, are the hardest games to win. But as he hit one of his three 3-pointers Saturday evening to give his team a then-16 point lead just six minutes in, he sneered as he stalked back to the bench.
There would be no comeback Saturday night. Not against the Lakers, who not only outplayed Houston in a 119-96 win in Game 5 to advance to the Western Conference Finals, but played their own smallball style in superior fashion.
By the fourth quarter, they were crushing Houston by as much as 30 points, watching the spirit leak out of their fourth-seeded opponent.
James was at the heart of it, scoring 29 points with 11 rebounds and 7 assists, but six Lakers total scored in double figures.
As the Lakers spent the closing minutes cheering on the end of their bench, Houston’s stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook sat with thousand-yard stares. Harden had 30 points, but Westbrook had just 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 ever, Lakers seasons are measured in championships, and quickly the team’s attention will shift ahead to the winner of the Clippers-Nuggets series which could conclude as soon as Sunday afternoon.
James is no stranger to these late stages of the season, but for Anthony Davis, it was the furthest he’s ever been. The Lakers’ prize summer addition looked uneven on offense with 13 points and 6 turnovers, but made up for it with defensive effort, including 11 rebounds as the Lakers earned a 50-31 edge.
The Rockets went out kicking and screaming — literally in the case of Russell Westbrook, who got into a fourth-quarter shouting match with William Rondo, Rajon Rondo’s brother, who ESPN reported was waving “goodbye” as the Lakers’ lead ballooned past 20 points. Westbrook had to be restrained by an official as William Rondo was asked by security to leave the arena. The NBA has fan conduct rules for player guests read before every game.
But Westbrook and Houston’s problems are just beginning following elimination. It seemed to bring an end to a once-promising era for the franchise, which made four second-round appearances under coach Mike D’Antoni, whose contract is up after this season. After committing fully to their micro-sized roster, the Rockets have troubling offseason issues, which also including more than $80 million committed to two stars who have not brought them to the Finals.
Perhaps because the Lakers expected so much desperation from the Rockets, they came out with an extra dose of pep: With James charging and their 3-point shooters firing, they quickly shot up the scoreboard to a double-digit lead.