He was Mike Tyson in front of a disoriented opponent. He was Tom Brady in the fourth quarter. He was Cristiano Ronaldo in the penalty box.
Of course he was. He was in a close-out game.
LeBron James was cold-blooded. He was fearless. He didn’t allow the Houston Rockets to sneak back into the game or the series.
With another authoritative performance Saturday night, James vaulted the Lakers to a 119-96 victory that advanced them to the Western Conference finals, swatting the Rockets out of the NBA bubble in the process.
James and the Lakers made official what everyone knew before the game started, which was that the series already was over. They did so emphatically.
“Mentally, I come in with the same desperation as the opponent,” James said. “I understand that in a close-out game, the team that’s down is going to play very desperate and they’re going to play to their best ability. If you allow that to happen throughout the course of a 48-minute game, they will extend the series.”
A series that opened with a disconcerting loss was completed in five games, as James finished with 29 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists.
This is what champions do. When their opponents are down, they make sure they stay there. When their opponents have almost no hope, they crush them completely.
This is what the Lakers did to Portland in the opening round, dropping the first game and proceeding to win the next four.
“Our whole group was really locked in,” coach Frank Vogel said. “You could see that with LeBron. He’s always locked in, but he was definitely locked in for getting the job done tonight. There was great importance placed on sense of urgency and getting the job done.”
James and the Lakers did what Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers failed to do a night earlier.
Like the Lakers, the Clippers were ahead in their series, three games to one. Like the Lakers, they built a substantial lead.
Except the Clippers couldn’t hold on.
Now, their lead is down to 3-2. They take on the Denver Nuggets on Sunday in Game 6 and, if necessary, again on Tuesday in Game 7.
The Clippers have more depth than the Lakers. They have more talent.
But they’re still missing that extra something, to which Paul George referred last week.
“We have to string some wins together instead of winning, losing, winning, losing,” George said.
The Lakers don’t have that problem. They know how to finish an opponent.
James does, at least.
He’s played in 14 playoff series in which his team was ahead three games to one. James’ team advanced every time.
James has won 15 of the last 16 close-out games in which he’s played.
The Lakers will play in the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2010, and the ability to send a wounded opponent home evidently remains in their bloodstream.
They are 36-1 in NBA playoff series in which they’ve had a 3-1 advantage. The lone setback came against Mike D’Antoni, the Rockets coach. That was in 2006, when D’Antoni was coaching the Phoenix Suns and reversed a 3-1 deficit in a first-round matchup.
James refused to let D’Antoni even entertain the possibility.
The playmaking freight train was on the attack from the start of the game, scoring 11 points in a first quarter in which the Lakers were ahead by as many as 22. They were ahead 35-20 at the end of the period.
And whenever the Rockets went on a run, James made it a point to stop it.
The Rockets opened the second quarter with an 8-0 surge that reduced the Lakers’ lead to seven, prompting Vogel to call a timeout. James sank a three-pointer from the corner on the next play.
“Obviously, you could tell throughout the course of a game, throughout the course of a quarter, momentum is being shifted, and we saw that from the first quarter to the second quarter,” James said. “Houston came out, hit a barrage of threes, was able get into the lane, cut the lead. And if I’m on the floor, I have to try to seize the opportunity to kind of stop the run, either get to the free-throw line, get a layup or a dunk, or get a good look.”
He did it again in the third quarter.
On what was later revealed to be the Rockets’ final stand, Russell Westbrook blew by Anthony Davis for a layup that reduced the margin to seven.
James responded with another three-pointer.
“When a team is in a good rhythm and a team is making a run, you want to try to make a shot,” James said. “More importantly, you hope to get to the free-throw line to kind of stop the run, slow everybody down, but getting one to go through helps a lot.”
In this instance, it ended the game, as L.A. went on to open a 30-point lead.
This is why the Lakers will be playing in their first conference finals in 10 years. And this is why they could be crowned champions next month.
Hernàndez reported from Los Angeles.