LeBron James seared “desperation” into his mindset.
“For me mentally, I come in with the same desperation as the opponent,” he said. “I understand that in a close-out game, the team that’s down is going to play very desperate, and they’re gonna play to their best ability. If you allow that to happen throughout the course of your 48-minute game, they will extend the series.”
Saturday in Orlando, the Rockets didn’t.
The Lakers eliminated the Rockets 4-1 in dominating fashion, capping their effort with a 119-96 victory in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals. The series-closing wire-to-wire victories helped them advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2010. James now owns a career record of 37-10 in close-out games, having averaged 28.3 points in those outings while shooting 47.8% from the field.
“I know what my name, my stature and what I’ve done in this league comes with -- whenever I decide to join a franchise, either for starting off my first seven years with Cleveland, my four years in Miami, going back to Cleveland four more years, and then coming into this franchise,” James said. “I know what my name comes with, and it comes with winning.
“I take that responsibility to the utmost because I am a winner and I’ve always been a winner from the first time I ever played organized basketball. It’s never about you. So, I understand the Laker faithful, and what they’ve felt and what they’ve been going through the last decade of not being in the postseason, not competing for championships. I took that responsibility as well. So, I’m happy I’m able to [play] a little bit of a part of it, and the rest of my ballclub, the coaching staff and everybody that has put [in] the sacrifice to get this franchise back to competing for a championship, which we’ve done all year.”
James racked up 29 points to go with 11 rebounds and 7 assists in Game 5, as he and Anthony Davis (13 points, 11 rebounds) became the first pair of teammates to each average at least 25 points and 10 rebounds in a playoff series since the 1961 NBA Finals, when Bob Pettit and Cliff Hagan accomplished the feat for the St. Louis Hawks.
“The fact that they’re so cohesive on and off the court really impacts our group’s togetherness and our chemistry,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said of James and Davis. “It filters down to the rest of the guys. Both of them have dominant abilities on both sides of the floor, and they’re both willing passers. So, they fit what we’re trying to build here in terms of being a team-first team offensively, and one that’s athletic and gifted, talented and committed on the defensive end. All of those things are leading us to success thus far, and I’m looking forward to seeing how far we can take it.”
Here are three observations from Game 5:
1. Small-ish Lakers strike again
Los Angeles utilized the same starting lineup it took the floor with for its Game 4 win in this one, electing to roll with James, Davis, Danny Green, Markieff Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
This lineup spent 14 minutes on the floor together in Game 5, producing an offensive rating of 161.5 and a defensive rating of 73.1 to go with a true shooting percentage of 86.8. The same group spent a total of 9 minutes on the floor together in Game 4, and finished with a an offensive rating of 100.0, a defensive rating of 70.6, a true shooting percentage of 50.4 and a rebounding percentage of 60.0.
Perhaps that’s why Houston coach Mike D’Antoni isn’t yet ready to give up small ball, even after Saturday’s disastrous results for his team.
“Ask the Lakers, that’s what they beat us with,” D’Antoni said. “They were small. Golden State did a pretty good job with theirs. I definitely think you can win [with small ball].”
The Lakers played the Rockets with smaller lineups for the majority of the conference semifinals, but Vogel has said on numerous occasions that he hasn’t eliminated big men JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard from the team’s plans moving forward, as Los Angeles faces the winner of the Denver-L.A. Clippers series.
2. Blood in the water
On the brink of eliminating the Rockets, it’s clear the Lakers saw some vulnerability and pounced. Los Angeles stormed out to a 22-point lead and would lead this game by as many as 30. James led the charge with 11 points on 4-for-6 shooting and Caldwell-Pope chipped in 8 points, knocking down both his attempts from 3-point range in the first quarter.
Los Angeles racked up 13 points on fast breaks in the opening quarter, compared to none for the Rockets and connected on 13-of-18 from the floor and 7-of-12 from deep.
Maybe James Harden’s recent experiences in elimination games tempted the Lakers to throw the first punch. Coming into Game 5, Harden owned a record of 1-5 in his last elimination six games, averaging 23.8 points, 38% shooting from the field, and 25% from 3-point range while averaging 6.7 turnovers. Despite the early Lakers onslaught, Harden settled in nicely with a 12-point second quarter. Headed into intermission, Harden was tied with James for a game-high 19 points on 7-for-11 shooting.
Houston at one point cut Los Angeles’ early lead to 7 points, before finishing the first half trailing 62-51. The Rockets capitalized off 13 Los Angeles turnovers for 15 points to stay within striking distance. A 17-2 run from the 1:56 mark of the first quarter to the 10:04 point of the second quarter definitely helped, too.
But by the end of the third quarter, the game was pretty much over as the Lakers -- having shot 15-for-27 on 3-point attempts in the first three quarters -- held a 26-point lead. Houston shot 29.4% from 3-point range over the first three quarters.
“It’s very, very frustrating,” Harden said. “Especially with the amount of work that individually I’ve put in. But I’m gonna keep chipping away, keep going and keep going until I can’t go anymore.”
3. Houston’s future
You’ve got to wonder where the Rockets go from here, and it’s worth questioning whether management decides to pull the plug on the team’s small-ball style. General manager Daryl Morey and D’Antoni showed some conviction in the system by leaning all the way into it with their trade deadline exchange of Clint Capela for Robert Covington. But if the plan moving forward is to continue playing that way, the front office will need to find a way to put more talent around Harden that fits, which could prove difficult given Houston’s situation.
“I feel like we’re a piece away,” Harden said. “We’ve just got to keep trying to figure it out, keep trying to grow and put the right pieces around me and Russ [Westbrook] to get to where we want to go. We’ve got to look at our entire team and see what direction we want to go. Obviously, [for] half of the season, we tried the small ball. It worked for the most part. So, we’ve just got to take an overall look at our team and see what holes we need to fill and go from there.”
Let’s not forget that D’Antoni’s contract expired after Game 5, and his return for next season appears to be uncertain. The loss in Game 5 marked the first time the Rockets were eliminated in fewer than six games under D’Antoni. The Rockets are now 2-11 all-time when trailing a series 3-1.
“I’ve got to let this one sink in a little bit,” D’Antoni said. “We’ve got a great organization, great city, great fans. The team’s great. Everything’s good here. So, we’ll see what happens. But I couldn’t ask for a better situation. I had four years, and hopefully it keeps going. But you just never know. Everything is good on this side, for sure. I want to continue coaching, sure.”
The Rockets already have big money tied up in Harden, Westbrook and Eric Gordon for next season, and they don’t control a 2020 draft pick. Considering Westbrook's issues shooting the 3-ball, he doesn’t appear to be an ideal superstar fit alongside Harden. So, does Houston tweak the system toward a more traditional style, or does it find pieces that cater the current setup?
After the Game 5 loss, nobody with the Rockets sounded like they were ready to give up on small ball, despite the fact they’ve been outrebounded now in 35 of their last 38 games.
“It’s way too early to assess that,” D’Antoni said. “One, that’s Daryl’s job. He’ll do a great job of trying and finding and putting a roster together that can compete. We competed. We were in the top four in the West. But we just couldn’t get over the hump. This is a very good team, and they played great tonight. It’s way too early.”
Westbrook didn’t hesitate when asked whether small ball was a sustainable system for winning.
“Yeah, man, I think when you have the right group of guys that can do it, it’s definitely sustainable,” said Westbrook, who finished with 10 points on 4-for-13 shooting. “It’s definitely something that you can build off of, and something that can put teams in a bind.”
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