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LeBron James, Lakers Dominate Harden, Rockets in Game 5 to Advance to WCF

Paul KasabianSenior ContributorSeptember 13, 2020

Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James dunks against the Houston Rockets during the first half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Lakers polished off their Western Conference Semifinal series against the Houston Rockets with a 119-96 win Saturday at ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex in the Orlando, Florida, area.

L.A. outscored Houston 35-20 in the first quarter and never found itself in serious danger of losing its lead afterward.

The Rockets cut the edge to 65-59 in the third after a James Harden layup, but the Lakers responded by outscoring Houston 30-10 for the remainder of the quarter.

LeBron James led the Lakers with 29 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. All five Laker starters plus substitute Kyle Kuzma scored in double digits.

Harden led all scorers with 30 points in his team's season-ending loss. Houston shot 37.1 percent from the field and 26.5 percent from three-point range.

After losing Game 1, L.A. won four straight to take the best-of-seven series 4-1.

            

Notable Performances

Rockets G James Harden: 30 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists

Rockets G Russell Westbrook: 10 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists

Rockets F/C Jeff Green13 points, 2 rebounds

Lakers G/F LeBron James: 29 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists

Lakers F/C Anthony Davis: 13 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists

Lakers F Kyle Kuzma: 17 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists

   

Lakers' Dominant First Quarter Launches Them Into Western Conference Finals

The Lakers led 13-2 after just three minutes and 33-11 after nine even though Anthony Davis didn't take a shot until the second quarter.

And that's all you need to know about how well the Lakers did, to the point where the contest felt over three minutes into the game.

In fairness to Houston, stopping the freight train that is a James one-man fast break is near-impossible, and the Rockets couldn't slow it down, like on this bucket to give L.A. a 13-2 edge: 

Los Angeles Lakers @Lakers

Behind-the-back into the jam. @KingJames is ready for this one 🥵 (📺: ESPN) https://t.co/5wbdnrjHhq

The three-point barrage was on as every starter outside Davis (plus Kuzma) hit a first-quarter three. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's three launched the Lakers bench into a frenzy and put the team up 29-11: 

Los Angeles Lakers @Lakers

If anybody can appreciate a 3-point barrage it’s @TheRealJRSmith 😂👌 (📺: ESPN) https://t.co/dTTmxeVifq

L.A. seemingly couldn't miss from deep as James, Danny Green, Caldwell-Pope, Kuzma and Markieff Morris all launched makes from downtown. The Lakers finished the first quarter making 13 of 18 shots and hit a team playoff record 19 threes by night's end.

Los Angeles Lakers @Lakers

That's a franchise playoff-record 19 triples 👌👌👌👌👌👌👌👌👌👌👌👌👌👌👌👌👌👌👌 (📺: ESPN) https://t.co/t5hOOLRCjk

Any good Rockets moment was quickly wiped away by a positive Lakers play or more. L.A. also clearly had more energy, down to the last man on the bench, as the team seemingly exploded every time a big play was made.

The Lakers finished off the Rockets in epic fashion, but L.A. has eyes on a much bigger prize. And as Kuzma said postgame to ESPN's Scott Van Pelt on SportsCenter, this team is a tight-knit group in which everyone likes each other.

That chemistry can be invaluable come playoff time, as it seemed to be during the Lakers' first quarter, which basically made the rest of the game moot.

The question is whether this will continue for the rest of the playoffs. Still, one thing is clear: The Lakers are the clear favorite to win the NBA Finals, and that will happen easily if they play anywhere close to how they did Saturday.

               

Rockets Can't Dig Out of Massive First-Quarter Hole

Anything that could go wrong did for the Rockets in the first quarter as point-blank blown layups, sloppy turnovers, a stagnant offense and poor three-point defense symbolized a horrible opening 12 minutes.

However, one sequence late in the first quarter encapsulated this game.

Houston couldn't buy a bucket or a defensive stop for the first 10 or so minutes of the first quarter, but the Rockets enjoyed some good action on the offensive end after crisp, pinpoint passing led to an Austin Rivers three-pointer.

Granted, that only cut the Lakers' lead to 33-17, but the Houston offense showed signs of life in that moment.

Any good will was wiped away in seconds, though, as the Rockets failed to get back on defense. James noticed, rushed up court and found Kuzma for an uncontested layup with zero Rockets between him and the hoop.

The Rockets rarely found success on defense, to the point where Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle said it "folded:"

Jonathan Feigen @Jonathan_Feigen

Lakers 35, Rockets 20 after 1. Lakers were great. Rockets defense folded. Lakers shoot 72.2 %. Rockets started game making 2 of 8 shots at the rim. Anthony Davis did not take a shot, or need to.

The missed layups didn't help, but as Feigen noted, that would be a problem against anyone:

Jonathan Feigen @Jonathan_Feigen

Kind of tough to compete with the Lakers when you miss and give away layups. Actually, kind of tough against anyone.

Despite that, the Rockets showed signs of life in the second quarter thanks to Harden, who scored 19 first-half points and kept this game from becoming a blowout at halftime. 

Houston Rockets @HoustonRockets

Harden with 19pts on 7-11 FG shooting in the 1st half https://t.co/tLeJEmvvNu

It helped that Harden's teammates then started to get it going. P.J. Tucker, who missed three point-blank layups and couldn't hit the rim on a corner three in the first, knocked down a pair of threes to get Houston going in the second half:

Houston Rockets @HoustonRockets

PJ knocking down 2 3s to start the 3rd! https://t.co/Qd9BR1UAjA

And then Harden pulled off a Eurostep to get the Rockets within three buckets:

Houston Rockets @HoustonRockets

That quick euro step 🔥 https://t.co/jYHgmiVObb

That's where the Rockets' highlights ended, though, as L.A. put its foot on the gas and outscored Houston by 20 points over the remainder of the third. Both teams' starters hit the bench by the middle of the fourth.

Credit to the Rockets for fighting after their poor first quarter, but as ESPN Stats & Info noted, a comeback after their opening 12 minutes would have been a near-historic one, especially against this Lakers team:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

The Rockets trailed by as many as 22 points in the first quarter. There have been 3 teams to win when down at least 22 in the 1st quarter of a postseason game since play-by-play tracking began in 1996-97. Most recently the Clippers in 2014. https://t.co/rTHqjruusO

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

The Lakers are 23-1 when leading by 10+ points at the half this season (reg. season and playoffs). https://t.co/igF6XAKxwT

Ben DuBose of Rockets Wire explained the difficulty in coming back from such a deficit:

Ben DuBose @BenDuBose

Similar to Game 2, the problem with digging a 20+ point hole is that whenever the other team counters with a run (almost inevitable, given that it's an NBA game), it feels overwhelming because you had to expend so much effort just to get it close.

It didn't help that Harden's teammates hit 21 of 69 shots (with co-star Russell Westbrook going 4-of-13) while he went 12-of-20.

Westbrook's postseason performance was not good, which was an anomaly compared to how he played before the season was suspended on March 11 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

ClutchFans, a Rockets' fan site, provided this comment regarding how he appeared:

ClutchFans @clutchfans

Russell Westbrook was simply awful in the playoffs and don't get me started again on the trade, but we can't forget how phenomenal he was pre-bubble. In those final 22 games before COVID hit, he averaged 32.2 ppg on over 53% shooting. Completely different player.

Westbrook's play wasn't the only issue, though. Ultimately, the poor defensive effort and team offense outside Harden put Houston in a position that made it impossible to win.

             

What's Next?

The Lakers await the winner of the Denver Nuggets vs. Los Angeles Clippers.

The Clips lead that best-of-seven series three games to two. Game 6 will occur Sunday at 1 p.m. ET, with Game 7 set for Tuesday if Denver wins.

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