The last time the Los Angeles Lakers reached the Western Conference Finals they were led by Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Derek Fisher.
After a ten year wait, enduring the tragic death of the Black Mamba and a global pandemic that shut the NBA season down for four months, the Lakers will return again, this time led by LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Rajon Rondo.
James had 29 points and the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Houston Rockets, 119-96, in Game 5 on Saturday night, sealing their first trip to the Western Conference Finals since 2010.
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When James first announced that he was joining the Lakers in the summer of 2018, he promised to return the franchise to greatness. An injury in his inaugural season hampered those plans, but convincing the team to trade for Anthony Davis has put them back on the path to championship glory.
"I know what my name and my stature and what I've done in this league comes with whenever I decide to join a franchise," said James. "It comes with winning, and I take that responsibility. So I understand the Laker faithful and what they felt and have been going through over the last decade of not being in the postseason or competing for championships. I took on that responsibility as well, and I'm happy to be a little bit a part of getting this franchise back to competing for a championship."
Davis, who has been astounding throughout the series, was not needed on offense in the closeout game, finishing with just 13 points and 11 rebound in the blowout victory.
"I feel like everything is falling into place," said Davis about reaching the Western Conference Finals for the first time in his career. "When I got here obviously the goal is to win a championship and we're eight wins away. It's everything I envisioned when I came here."
Over the past week, the Lakers and Rockets have traded jabs back and forth in a confrontation of contrasting styles that had many NBA experts believing Houston could pull off a historic upset.
The Lakers called the Rockets "small," James Harden responded by saying, "I don't care if you're seven-feet tall, if you don't have heart, it doesn't matter."
Houston won Game 1 convincingly. The Lakers responded by removing their two seven-foot centers from the rotation, inserting Markieff Morris into the starting lineup, and beating the Rockets at their own game. They won the next four games in dominant fashion, taking the series and perhaps ending an era in Houston in the process.
"We learned from our mistakes in Game 1," said James. "Game 1 is a feel-out game. We had numerous film sessions and were able to clean up some things and we were better. That's what you want to do. You want to continue to grow throughout a series and put yourselves in winning positions and that was the byproduct of it."
Rockets' head coach Mike D'Antoni is in the final year of his contract and might not return next season. Houston traded future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook last summer, and its still unknown if he's a good fit alongside former MVP James Harden in the backcourt.
"We'll see what happens," said D'Antoni when asked if his run with the Rockets had come to an end. "I had four years. Hopefully it keeps going, but you just never know."
One thing we do know is that on Saturday; it was all Lakers in Game 5. For the second consecutive game, the Lakers led from start to finish, starting the game on a 23-to-7 run before fans watching from home could turn the game on their television sets.
"Our whole group was really locked in," said Lakers' head coach Frank Vogel of the team's start to the game. "You could see that with LeBron for getting the job done tonight. There was a great importance on playing with a sense of urgency and understanding how good a team [The Rockets] is. I was proud of the sense of urgency our whole group brought to tonight's game."
The Lakers led by as many as 22 points in the first half, and by as many as 30 points in the fourth quarter as they removed all doubt of the final outcome by the first timeout of the fourth quarter. Both teams accepted the inevitable and emptied their benches for most of the fourth quarter.
Houston had their worst shooting performance from three-point range in the series, shooting just 26 percent (13-for-49). Harden bounced back from a bad performance in Game 4, by scoring 30 points.
Russell Westbrook struggled in Game 5, scoring just 10 points on 4-for-13 shooting from the field, and 0-for-3 from beyond the arc. Jeff Green had 13 points off the bench.
Los Angeles had six players score in double-figures, led by James who finished with 29 points, 11 rebounds, and seven assists in just 29 minutes.
Morris finished with 16 points and was a perfect 4-for-4 from beyond the arc. Danny Green had his best game of the series, scoring 14 points on four three-pointers. Kyle Kuzma had 17 points off the bench.
""t hasn't sunk in yet,"" said Kuzma of reaching the Western Conference Finals. "It's obviously a dream come true. You play this game to win games and compete at a high level just like all your idols did prior. Now I'm in a situation where we have a chance to win a championship and I'm very excited."
After drawing even with the Rockets in the rebounding battle in Game 1, the Lakers dominated the glass in their four straight victories, and the same took place on Saturday as the Lakers outrebounded the Rockets, 50-31 in Game 5.
The Lakers will play the winner of the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets series starting on either Wednesday for Friday.