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LeBron James leads Lakers over Rockets to take series lead

Lakers' LeBron James shoots over Houston Rockets' James Harden.
Lakers’ LeBron James shoots over Houston Rockets’ James Harden during the second half on Tuesday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

LeBron James had just bodied James Harden, moving little as the Houston Rockets star thumped a shoulder into James’ chest. Moments later, Harden threw the ball out of bounds, giving the Lakers the ball with a rare comfortable lead.

Stone-faced, James walked over to the corner where the ball had just sailed past Rajon Rondo. Houston forward Jeff Green stood between the two players. But rather than go around him, James lifted his arm in front of Green’s face and Rondo reached up from the other side of Green to complete the high five, their arms creating a tent over their opponent.

The two 30-something veterans had played pivotal roles in the Lakers’ 112-102 victory Tuesday as they took a 2-1 lead in their second-round series. James finished with 36 points, seven rebounds, four blocked shots and five assists. Anthony Davis finished with 26 points, 15 rebounds and six assists. Rondo had 21 points, 12 of them in the fourth quarter, and nine assists.

With the victory, James became the league’s all-time leader in playoff wins, passing Derek Fisher.

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“I haven’t had an opportunity to kind of let it sink in or even think about it; I’m already kind of preparing for Game 4,” James said. “But when I hear it, I mean, just to know the history of the game, from growing up as a kid watching the NBA playoffs, seeing so many dominant players, so many dominant franchises and seeing who was victorious out there during a lot of series and to know that I sit at the top for most wins for any individual, it’s very humbling and it’s something I never dreamed of.”

Said Lakers Coach Frank Vogel: “I said it when I talked about the MVP this year, nobody impacts winning more than LeBron James. That’s true for this season, it’s why he should be MVP and honestly, it’s probably true in the history of the game — no one impacts winning more than LeBron James. To see that he has the actual numerical statistic is just indicative of that.”

Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat are headed to the Eastern Conference finals after defeating the Milwaukee Bucks 103-94 to win the series 4-1.

Until the rest of his team could match what he did, James kept the Lakers afloat.

He scored 29 points in the first half, making 11 of 14 shots and four of five threes.

The Lakers struggled with defense and turnovers, however, which meant that even though they made 62.2% of their first-half shots, they trailed 64-61. Up to that point, the Lakers had given up 10 turnovers for 12 points.

Points off turnovers had been a problem for the Lakers in Game 1 as well. But that was an issue they resolved in the second half Tuesday when they gave up only three more turnovers and no points off them.

Behind their defense, their sharper offense and four blocks from James, the Lakers evened the score at 82-82 after three quarters.

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“That’s when he’s at his best,” Kyle Kuzma said of James. “Playing that low man. Being able to … be that quarterback and see everything on the floor. If we get beat, obviously we have AD, JaVale [McGee], Dwight [Howard] blocking shots, but Bron did a hell of a job and a hell of a job all playoffs just being that backline defense. It’s paying off for us.”

The Lakers held the Rockets to 18 points in the third quarter, and James’ contribution was particularly important as they went to smaller lineups to counteract the Rockets’ personnel. McGee played only 6 minutes 37 seconds and Howard didn’t play at all.

Going into the fourth quarter, the lead had changed 14 times.

During that final 12 minutes, the Lakers’ other championship veteran took over. Twenty-three of the Lakers’ fourth-quarter points were scored or assisted on by Rondo.

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It’s a point of pride for both him and James. The two have fed off each other’s knowledge of the game for the past two years, and while James’ body has held up better and his ability exceeds Rondo’s, they feel a kinship over their years of service.

Anthony Davis joined Giannis Antetokoumpo and Rudy Gobert on the NBA All-Defensive first team. Clippers Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley are on second team.

“One, we don’t know how many opportunities we’re going to get at this level,” James said. “Two, our league kind of tries to leave guys like us in our later years out of the league. And you see it a lot. Guys in their 30s, mid-30s, they kind of try to stray away from the vets, things of that nature. So that’s a little pride as well. And then three, some people are built for this moment and some people are not. I just think that when you’ve been in the process and you’ve been building your mind, your body and your soul for the postseason no matter the circumstances, then you’re able to rise.

“Now that doesn’t always mean you’re gonna play well, that doesn’t mean you’re gonna win. But you can leave the game and sleep OK at night if you lose.”

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James credited “that pride factor of understanding our league has tried to get away from the vets, and then just living in the moment.”

“You don’t have that many opportunities to be part of a great team, to be part of great teammates,” he said. “You don’t know what could happen from year to year so you just try to make the most of it.”

Three takeaways on the Lakers

  1. The Lakers shot 55.1% from the field in the game, which made it the fifth time in eight games they’ve shot 50% or better during the playoffs. The Lakers haven’t lost this postseason when they shoot that well.
  2. The Rockets said multiple times after the game that they were tired. A similar phenomenon happened in the first round when the Portland Trail Blazers rode the momentum of their entry into the playoffs to a Game 1 win but quickly wore down and lost the next four.
  3. Lakers star Anthony Davis took a beating physically during the game and said afterward he felt fine. Davis said he was prepared to handle the physicality of playing Houston.

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