LeBron James placed Game 4 preparation ahead of perspective Tuesday night after moving to No. 1 in all-time NBA playoff victories (162).
James scored a game-high 36 points, including 29 in the first half, before dominating from the defensive end in the second half to lead the Lakers to a 2-1 series lead over the Houston Rockets by way of a 112-102 win.
“I haven’t had an opportunity to let it sink in,” James said of his latest milestone. “I’m already kind of preparing for Game 4. But when I hear it, to just 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, seeing who was victorious out there and to know I sit at the top of most wins for any individual is very humbling and something I never dreamed of.
“But it doesn’t happen without my teammates over the years, my coaching staffs, everyone from top to bottom — GMs, owners, training staff, ball boys, everything — everyone has a hand in it because we’re all a part of the process and success.”
Game 3 served as testament to James’ thoughts with Los Angeles leaning on timely contributions from Anthony Davis (26 points) and veteran point guard Rajon Rondo (21 points and nine assists), who carried the Lakers on a personal 8-0 run in the fourth quarter to break open a close game.
Rondo’s 21 points registered as his most in the playoffs since May of 2018.
With the Lakers up 86-85, Rondo knocked down a 22-footer, and followed up 34 seconds later with another 3-pointer. Rondo stole an errant James Harden pass on the ensuing possession and converted on the other end with a finger roll to put Los Angeles ahead 94-85 shortly before serving up his 1,000th career playoff assist on an Alex Caruso 3-pointer.
Rondo said after Game 3 that he doesn’t buy into the “Playoff Rondo” moniker, but he’s certainly embodied it over the last two games.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel expected this all along, despite Rondo missing the team’s seeding games and the first round after undergoing surgery in July on his fractured right thumb. So did James, having faced Rondo in the playoffs on 25 occasions, as well as Davis, who played with the point guard in New Orleans in 2017-18, when the Pelicans swept Portland in the first round.
“’Playoff Rondo’ is real,” Davis said. “His intensity picks up. He wants to guard the best perimeter guy. He wants to facilitate on the floor. He’s shooting the ball very well, making the right passes. We’ve got the two best I.Q. guys in the game with him and LeBron on the floor at the same time, which is tough for defenses. So, ‘Playoff Rondo’ is real, and he showed up tonight.”
Rondo scored 15 points and dished five assists over the final two quarters as the Lakers limited Houston to just 38 second-half points. Davis credits James and Rondo with helping the Lakers make defensive adjustments on the fly, as they did in Game 3.
“They see a lot of things on the floor, then we make adjustments,” Davis said. “We come in with a game plan, but things happen in the course of a game. … With at least one [of them] on the floor at all times, it’s easier to make those adjustments. It’s been helpful for me. Those two guys, with that basketball I.Q. on both ends of the floor have been wonderful for us.”
Rondo’s experience and knowledge makes him a rarity in today’s NBA, according to James.
“[It’s beneficial] when you have enough people you can trust and be in the foxhole with you, not from a basketball aspect, but from a cerebral aspect,” he said. “The postseason is about making adjustments from game to game, and also being able to make adjustments on the fly because things happen in real time. Being able to see how defenses are playing, seeing how the game is being played, seeing how the flow of the game is being played, there’s just not many guys that can do that in our league. In the postseason, it’s gigantic. Having Do’ on your side definitely helps.”
James did most of the heavy lifting in the first half with 29 points that may have prevented a Houston blowout. Harden and Russell Westbrook combined for 38 first-half points as the Rockets shot 56.8% from the field and 42.9% on 3-pointers.
’Playoff Rondo’ is real. His intensity picks up. He wants to guard the best perimeter guy. He wants to facilitate on the floor. … ‘Playoff Rondo’ is real, and he showed up tonight.”
Anthony Davis, on Rajon Rondo
Harden finished with 33 points, while Westbrook bounced back from a dismal Game 2 to contribute 30 points on 13-of-24 shooting and 2-of-4 from deep.
“We didn’t play any defense in the first half,” Vogel said. “So, this easily could’ve been a blowout if [James] wasn’t hitting big shot after big shot.”
Big blocks for James came soon after — four of them, in fact, in the third quarter — as the 35 year old set a personal playoff milestone for blocks in a quarter. James has eight blocks in this series, but only one of his four blocks in the third quarter led to points.
James ran down Austin Rivers (whose father, Doc, was in attendance) for a block that prevented Houston from breaking an 82-82 tie at the third-quarter buzzer.
“It’s unbelievable,” Vogel said. “When he’s protecting the rim on that end of the floor, and then scoring  in a half, that’s just remarkable. The lift he gives us with the superhero plays, you can’t really put it in words.”
Davis certainly tried to.
“It gives us a spark, his ability to chase guys down on fast breaks, something he’s been doing his whole career,” Davis said. “You’ve got the best guy on your team giving his body up trying to take charges and making big plays on the defensive end. Usually, if he blocks it, he’s running down the floor and he gets upset if we don’t give him the ball for dunks and lobs. So, we try to find him. Then, another spectacular play is coming on the other end.”
The last two games appear to be finally wearing on the Rockets. They expressed confidence Monday in the aftermath of Game 2. But Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said after Game 3 that, “I think our legs got a little tired” in the second half, and in the fourth, “I think it’s pretty obvious we just ran out of a little steam.”
Houston shot 6-for-20 in the third quarter, 7-for-18 in the fourth and put up 30 3-point attempts — their fewest since Jan. 22.
“We can’t play into their strengths and the things they love to do,” Harden said. “That’s halfcourt, slow the pace up, let them get set, let them meet us at the rim, which I think we did, especially in the second half.”
Houston’s bench, which has been outscored 83-19 over the last two games, is another growing concern. In the second half of Game 3, Los Angeles’ bench outscored the Rockets’ 30-7 as Jeff Green was the only Houston reserve to score in Game 3.
Sixth man Danuel House Jr. missed the game for what D’Antoni called “personal reasons.”
Houston’s reserves could be even thinner for Game 4 if Green is forced to start. Robert Covington left the game with 4:37 left after catching an inadvertent Davis elbow to his nose under the basket. D’Antoni wasn’t certain about Covington’s status and had “no idea” about whether House would play in Game 4.
As for James, it’s clear he’s still got plenty of support for a fifth Kia MVP award, even though it appears that hardware this season could go to Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“Nobody impacts winning more than LeBron James,” Vogel said. “Honestly, it’s probably true in the history of the game that no one has impacted winning more than LeBron James.”
Davis, meanwhile, has grown so accustomed to seeing James’ heroics that another career milestone in Game 4 wouldn’t surprise him.
“It seems like he’s drinking from the fountain of youth,” Davis said. “The things he’s able to do on the floor still: head still touching the rim, still taking big shots, still playing physical is all a testament to his hard work and dedication to taking care of his body. So, I’m pretty sure we’ll see another record being broken on Thursday.”
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