By eliminating the Houston Rockets from the postseason the Los Angeles Lakers took another step towards their ultimate goal of winning a championship. But even after going through two rounds of postseason play dismissing the Rockets and the Portland Trail Blazers, it would require the Lakers to win eight more ball games in order to achieve something the franchise has not done since 2010.
That was when Kobe Bryant drove the Lakers to a best-of-seven series 4-3 NBA Finals edge against the Boston Celtics. It’s been a title drought since then for the Lakers. LeBron James, in his second season with the ballclub, and Anthony Davis, enjoying his first run with the Purple and Gold, aim to bring back the luster that has been missing for quite some time.
The dynamic duo has done that by first leading the Lakers to their first Pacific Division title since 2011. The Lakers then claimed the record in the Western Conference to be the No. 1 seed. And now, after two rounds of playoff ball, the Lakers have shown both the Rockets and Trail Blazers just how dominant they are.
Both the Rockets and the Trail Blazers jumped out to series-opening victories, only to see the Lakers strike back with four consecutive wins to knock off two highly talented teams.
“For me mentally, I come in with the same desperation as the opponent,” James said. “I understand that in a closeout 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. Not saying I’m always successful on closing out the series, but that’s my mindset. My mindset is to be just as desperate as my opponent when I approach the game when I’m out there on the floor, and then live with the results.”
An indication of how dominant the Lakers were against the Rockets was how they played inside the paint. The Lakers shot an unguardable 68 percent (123-181 FG) from the field down in the painted area against Houston.
And then whenever the Lakers decide to make half of their shots from the field that is never a good thing for the other team. In the Lakers’ series closeout, which happened to be Game 5, the team shot 52 percent from the field in its 119-96 win. What does all that mean? Well, it means the Lakers have been unbeatable when they make 50 percent or more of their shots from the field.
Including the regular season, the Lakers are a perfect 33-0 when they hit on half of their shots. That’s not too bad. And not to pour any more salt on the Rockets’ defeatist wounds, the Lakers outshot Houston from 3-point range in Game 5. As a team, the Rockets made just 13 of the 49 3-point shots they attempted.
That equals out to 26 percent. On the flip side of that coin, the Lakers made 51 percent of their 3-point bombs, connecting on 19 of 37 attempts. In the overall grand scheme of things, the Lakers were just a superior ballclub.
The Lakers won this series because of the peerless ball movement. The Lakers made it to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since a decade ago because they were able to deliver baskets in the clutch. They put away the Rockets because James, Davis and The Crew provided some real suffocating defense on James Harden and Russell Westbrook, two of the NBA’s biggest stars.
This performance by the Lakers comes off the heels of Los Angeles putting a lid on Portland’s shooting duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in the first round.
“From Day 1, Coach (Frank) Vogel and the coaching staff said that we need to be the best defensive team in the league and we took that to heart,” said James, who dropped 29 points and 11 rebounds in the Lakers’ closeout win. “We had some good months; we’ve had some great months. We had a couple of weeks where we’re not that good defensively, but we’re hitting our stride at the right time, and that’s in the postseason. I think for us, we continue t get better and better throughout this postseason so far, and we want to continue that going into the next round.”
The Lakers have gotten to where they are today because of a myriad of reasons: motivation, purpose, coaching, and some droplets of good luck. James has been excellent at playing the conductor throughout the postseason. Davis has been masterful as the maestro. Alex Caruso, Danny Green, Dwight Howard, Kyle Kuzma, and the rest of the orchestra has been humming along with the right tune during this season-long performance.
But to keep the balling rolling in the right direction, everyone on the team has to maintain what they’ve been doing, James said.
“Just keeping the main thing the main thing. For us, it’s the opportunity to play for a championship,” James said. “That’s what we’re all here for. That’s what we all signed up for. Everyone has to make sacrifices in order to do that.”
The Lakers did it every which way but up against the Rockets. They played defense. They came up with clutch baskets when they needed them. And they actually kept in check two former NBA regular-season MVPs in Harden and Westbrook.
“For us, our focus really remains on the task at hand and staying in the moment,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel. “We’re not thinking about pressure what we have to win, for who and all those types of things. We really have a task-at-hand, stay-in-the-moment mindset. It really pays dividends for us.”
The dismantling of the Rockets, one of the more prolific scoring teams in the NBA, is but one more step in their long journey to the mountaintop, but the Lakers can now see some daylight to the dream they’ve had since training camp, and that is to be in a position to contend for the franchise’s 17th championship.
Thanks to James and Davis hooking up that journey began when the Lakers set foot into the postseason for the first time since 2013. Prior to going to work with James in his first full season with the Lakers, Davis said during the team’s media day last September that he expected to work well with the three-time NBA champion.
“I think we’re two guys who are very selfless who just want to win,” Davis said in reference to James. “When you have two guys like that it makes both of our jobs a lot easier. Again, we have other guys around us who also want to win and help us along the way.”
After seven years of frustration of going basically nowhere with the New Orleans Pelicans, Davis is in his first conference finals. Before he was traded to the Lakers, Davis had just two playoff appearances with his former team.
“It feels like everything is falling in place,” Davis said after the Lakers’ Game 5 victory. “When I got here, obviously, the goal is to win a championship. We’re eight wins away, so it’s been a great process for me. It’s been great to be around the guys that we have. Obviously, it’s been great being around [Le] Bron just helping me through it all. Obviously, at this point now, the Western Conference Finals is new for me. That process is going to be fun, but it’s everything that I envisioned.”
I write about sports, racial and social justice, culture, and everything else in between. Beat writer for the Rams, Chargers, Lakers, and Clippers. Part of the inaugural Associated Press Sports Editors Diversity Fellowship class. Howard University alum.