LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — A one-year break for LeBron James and a nine-year hiatus for his franchise came to an end on Saturday: James and the Los Angeles Lakers are back in the conference finals.
James poured in 29 points to go along with 11 rebounds and 7 assists in the Lakers’ 119-96 Game 5 victory over the Houston Rockets, storming back to take the Western Conference semifinals series 4-1 after Houston upset L.A. in Game 1.
The Lakers’ star improved to 37-10 in closeout opportunities, extending his streak to five consecutive wins in that situation. And L.A. snapped the longest cold spell in team history without making it to the round that determines a berth in the NBA Finals.
L.A. missed the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season last year in James’ maiden season with the Lakers — ending his personal run of eight straight Finals appearances and 14 straight postseason nods — but Year 2, teamed up with Anthony Davis and a cast of tested veterans, has been a different story.
“I know what my name, my stature, and what I’ve done in this league comes with whenever I decide to join a franchise,” said James, who registered his 133rd 25-5-5 game in the postseason since 2006, which leads the league. His closest competition in that span is Russell Westbrook with 42. “I know what my name comes with. And it comes with winning. I take that responsibility to the utmost [more] than anything. …
“I understand the Laker faithful and what they felt or maybe were going through over the, I want to say the last decade, of not being in the postseason, not competing for championships or whatever the case may be. I took that responsibility as well.”
Through the first two rounds of the playoffs, L.A.’s chief responsibility has been figuring out how to stop the high-powered offenses of the Portland Trail Blazers and the Rockets.
Facing a uniquely structured Houston team that traded its center, Clint Capela, midseason to go all-in on coach Mike D’Antoni’s small-ball approach, L.A. beat the Rockets at their own game as the series played out.
L.A. took control by turning to Markieff Morris as its starting big man in place of JaVale McGee from halftime of Game 3 through the end of the series and dominated. The Lakers held a 20-plus point lead over the Rockets in three of the final four games of the series — including a 30-point cushion Saturday.
Morris had 16 points on 6-for-7 shooting in Game 5 and went 4-for-4 on 3-pointers. L.A. outshot the Rockets from the outside as a team Saturday, going 19-for-37 from 3 (51.4%) compared to Houston’s 13-for-49 (26.5%).
Morris, who had nearly as many fouls (15) as points (19) in five games against Portland, was one of several Lakers role players to have redemptive second rounds. Guard Rajon Rondo, out since March because of a fractured right thumb and back spasms, turned the series around with 10 points, 9 assists and 5 steals in Game 2; followed by 21 points and nine assists in Game 3; and 11 points, 8 assists and 10 rebounds in Game 4. Danny Green, who shot only 7-for-28 from 3 in the seeding round, closed out the second round by going a combined 6-for-11 from deep in Games 4 and 5.
“Just keeping the main thing the main thing. And for us it’s the opportunity to play for a championship. That’s what we’re all here for. That’s what we all signed up for,” James said when asked to explain the improvement L.A. has shown as a group. “We have guys step up at times and we all feed off one another. It’s very important and very key for our ballclub.”
The Lakers are now 8-2 in the playoffs — having dispatched both the bubble MVP, Damian Lillard, and the league’s scoring champion, James Harden. And they’ve shown a marked improvement in their play after going just 3-5 in the seeding round when the team first arrived in Orlando.
“It just takes a little time to jell. We had four months off and obviously the guys had to get their legs back under them, rhythm and timing, all those types of things,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “But the confidence that I’ve had in this group has been strong all the way through and I’m excited about what we can accomplish going forward, not just what we’ve accomplished thus far.”
The Lakers will await the winner of the LA Clippers-Denver Nuggets series — which the Clippers lead 3-2 heading into Sunday’s Game 6 — to see if Los Angeles’ first NBA city series will be played out in the bubble in Florida or if the Lakers will face the Nuggets in a rematch of the 2009 conference finals.
Davis, who had 13 points, 11 rebounds and 4 assists to advance to the conference finals for the first time in his eight-year career, said L.A. will be ready for either scenario.
“Defensively, the way we played, guys being on a string, guys talking, guys covering for each other, just gave us a lot more confidence to put pressure on the ball knowing that someone has your back,” he said. “The way we finished the last two games in this series is very impactful and it’s going to help us through the next round.”