May 19, 2012
With their Game 2 collapse still fresh in their minds, the Los Angeles Lakers avoided a sequel with the only game plan they're confident will work against the younger, faster Oklahoma City Thunder.
They got slow. They got into the paint. And they got to the free-throw line 42 times, incredibly making all but one of those shots.
Kobe Bryant knows it isn't pretty. He also knows it's probably the only way the Lakers can pull the high-flying Thunder down to their level.
Bryant scored 14 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter, and the Lakers rallied late for a 99-96 victory in Game 3 on Friday night, cutting the Thunder's second-round series lead to 2-1.
"That's two games in a row that we controlled the tempo," said Bryant, who surpassed Gail Goodrich's 1972 team record of 17 free throws without a miss.
"We did a good job of controlling the pace of the game and being physical," Bryant added. "It's not taxing, it's fun. It's a challenge, and we all enjoy that. I know I certainly do. You want to be against an opponent that you respect, and you know is going to bring it physically and emotionally."
The Lakers were close to a historically insurmountable playoff deficit when the Thunder went ahead 92-87 with 3 minutes left. Instead, they finished on a 12-4 run, scoring six points on free throws in the final 33 seconds and earning the chance to even the series in Game 4 on Saturday night.
Metta World Peace swiped the ball from Kevin Durant and hit two free throws with 12.9 seconds left for the third-seeded Lakers. When Durant missed a potential tying 3-pointer before Andrew Bynum blocked Serge Ibaka's shot at the buzzer, the Lakers' frenzied crowd celebrated only their second victory in the last six playoff games.
"We continued to work, even when they got the lead a couple of times in the fourth quarter," said Pau Gasol, who had 12 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. "It's in us. We want to win this series, we want to beat this team, and we will do whatever it takes. Obviously, we know how hard it is going to be, but we are ready for it."
The back-to-back schedule won't help the Lakers' weary legs in their 11th playoff game in 21 days. Yet while the Thunder have shown more skill and athleticism than the Lakers can match, Los Angeles has largely controlled the tempo for two straight games.
Who knows what's possible in the shadow of the Lakers' 16 championship banners?
"It's going to take a mental commitment on our part in order to fight through the fatigue we might feel (Saturday)," Gasol said. "It's going to be all will, and desire, and effort. Just pushing ourselves through everything and anything that we might be feeling."
Durant scored 31 points before missing his last shot for Oklahoma City, which seemed poised to move to the brink of its second straight trip to the Western Conference finals. Instead, the Thunder lost for the first time in the postseason — but they didn't exactly appear shaken by their late struggles.
"It was just one of those games where we didn't close it out," Russell Westbrook said. "But we played hard, and we'll be ready for tomorrow."
Westbrook and James Harden scored 21 points apiece for the Thunder, who couldn't match the Lakers' late-game execution after soundly out-executing the Lakers in Game 2.