Five minutes and 31 seconds remained in the game when LeBron James left the court to watch the rest of it from the bench.
His work was done — for now.
Ten years after the last time they did it, the Lakers are headed to the Western Conference finals.
The Lakers defeated the Houston Rockets 119-96 on Saturday to win their second-round series four games to one. They did so dominating a team that beat them in Game 1 and challenged them at other points in Orlando, Fla.
“I understand the Laker faithful and what they felt or maybe were going through over … the last decade of not being in the postseason, or not competing for championships,” James said. “I took that responsibility as well. I’m happy I’m able to do a little bit of a part of it and the rest of my ballclub and the coaching staff and everybody who’s [made] the sacrifice of trying to get us back, getting this franchise back to competing for a championship, which we’ve done all year.”
James finished with 29 points and 11 rebounds, while Kyle Kuzma was the Lakers’ second-leading scorer with 17 points, making five of nine shots and three three-pointers. Anthony Davis finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds and all five Lakers starters scored in double figures.
Rockets star James Harden scored 30 points for the Rockets, making 12 of 20 shots two nights after making only two shots in Game 4. But he was the only Rockets player to score more than 13 points and the team shot only 37.1% overall, 26.5% on three-pointers.
“James and Russ [Russell Westbrook], both MVP-caliber players, great three-point shooting support system and we really really committed to the defensive end,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Even though they have a three-point attack, it was a paint-first mind-set. Our verticality and rim protection was just special tonight.”
The Lakers meanwhile shot better than 50% from the field and from three-point range, making 19 of 37 from beyond the arc.
Houston Coach Mike D’Antoni thought his team lacked the spirit necessary to compete with the Lakers in their Game 4 loss, and if they had any left for their final game of the season, the Lakers made sure to extinguish it.
At the start of Game 5, there appeared to be little the Rockets could do well. The Lakers had a 13-2 lead at the first break, and it grew to 22 in the first quarter. While the Rockets fought back and got to within seven, they couldn’t get much closer. Even though Anthony Davis had barely made an impact, the Lakers led by 11 heading into the break.
After halftime, the Rockets cut it to six points, but a 15-0 run by the Lakers took any question out of the outcome. The Lakers led by as many as 30 points, while the Rockets were taunted by Rajon Rondo’s brother in the stands.
“I just feel like everything is falling in place,” Davis said. “When I got here, obviously the goal is to win a championship and we’re eight wins away, so ...
“It’s been a great process for me. It’s been great being around the guys that we have. Obviously, it’s been great being around Bron and he’s just helping me through it all.”
James has been through this process before. He’s been to the conference finals, though not the Western Conference finals until now. He has won championships in Miami and Cleveland.
The pressure that comes with being a Laker is something James understands — but he also understands the pressure of simply being LeBron James and joining a team.
Anything short of a championship during his time in Los Angeles would be considered a failure.
“I know what it comes with,” James said. “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 from starting with my first seven years with Cleveland, my four years in Miami, going back to Cleveland four more years and then coming into this franchise. 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.”
That is what the Lakers counted on when they signed him.
Ganguli reported from Los Angeles.