What I hear: USA TODAY Sports Mark Medina discusses how mental health and the stress of being in an NBA bubble has become a problem that players talk about as the playoffs insist.


LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL. – LeBron James recognized the moment.

And as he often does, he pounced on him.

James and the Los Angeles Lakers didn’t want to play a sixth game in the series and give the Houston Rockets a bit of hope that Game 7 could be possible.

So they took care of business with a convincing 119-96 victory over the Rockets in Game 5 in the semifinals of the Western Conference on Saturday.

With a chance to send the Rockets home, James didn’t waste much time establishing his footprint in Game 5. He scored 11 of his 29 points in the first quarter when the Lakers opened a 33-11 lead. The result came close in the third quarter (65-59), but the Lakers continued with 30-10 and canceled any chance for the Rockets to return.

James also had 11 rebounds and seven assists.

In his last 16 games with a chance to eliminate an opponent, James has won 15 times, averaging 29.2 points, 9.7 rebounds and 7.9 assists and shooting 51.3% off the field and 35.4% on 3 -points.

“Mentally, I come with the same despair as the opponent,” James said. “I understand that a close-up game, the team that has fallen will play very desperately and play with the best of themselves, and if you allow that to happen during a 48-minute game, they will extend the series.

“I’m not saying I always manage to close the series, but that’s my thinking. My thinking is to be just as desperate as my opponent when I approach the game, when I’m there on the floor and then live with the results.”

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This was an important moment for James as a member of the Lakers. In his first postseason with the floor franchise, he helped them reach the conference finals for the first time since 2010, the last time the Lakers won a title.

This is the longest stretch of the Lakers without a championship from the 12-year drought of 1988-2000.

“I understand Laker’s loyalists and what they have felt or perhaps experienced in – I mean over the last decade – that they are not in the post-season, not competing for championships or whatever,” said James. “I took that responsibility, too.”

The Lakers are synonymous with titles and signed James in the summer of 2018 with the idea of ​​winning more after a decade of wrong steps. But the success and mystique of the franchise drew James there. He appreciates NBA history and winning the Lakers title is important to James.

From 2011-18, James played in eight consecutive NBA finals and won three titles. But James and the Lakers missed the playoffs last season. They return to the conference finals with a good chance of reaching the finals.

They are 8-2 in the playoffs, losing the opening of the series in the first and second rounds before winning the next four games against Portland and Houston. They were the most consistent, if not impressive, team in the West.

James has another star next to him in Anthony Davis, averaging 27.6 points, 10.9 rebounds and four assists. The Lakers are surrounded by quality role-players in Danny Green, Kentavid Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Markif Morris, Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo. They can scatter the floor and hit three points and play the defense needed to win a title.

The Lakers have the second best offensive and defensive ratings of the other playoff teams and are versatile. If they want to be small, like the ones in the Houston series, they can do it. If they have to grow up, they can do it.

“From day one, coach (Frank) Vogel and coaching staff said we had to be the best defensive team in the league,” said James, “and we took that to heart. We had a few good months. We had great months. We had a few weeks. in which we were not so good in defense. But we hit at the right time and that is in the post-season period. We continued to improve in this post-season period. We want to continue to move on to the next round. “

James has the look and sound of a player who knows what the Lakers can do and doesn’t want to waste the opportunity.

Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.

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