Kobe Bryant was, well, what you expect from Bryant after two losses, especially at home. Deadly efficient, clutch, close to unstoppable. When Bryant gets angry but remains focused, this is how it goes. He finished with 36 points while shooting a perfect 18-18 from the line, giving the Lakers a bit more breathing room with a 99-96 win.
Bryant decided early on he’s going to take this game all on his shoulders. He wasn’t planning on sharing the ball, or the glory. He shot terribly from the field (9-25), but did score 14 in the fourth quarter, and did very well when posting up. In general, the Lakers pushed the ball inside or just drove to the paint, which paid off for them in the form of 41-42 from the line, a new record for a team with at least 30 trips to the line.
It wasn’t a bad night for Kevin Durant, scoring 31 points. But he did miss the potential game tying three pointer, giving the Thunder their 14th consecutive playoff loss in LA, going back to the Seattle days. Russell Westbrook had another one of those iffy shooting nights, with 7-18 from the field, scoring 21 points. James Harden had 21 off the bench again. Pretty much what the Thunder need for a win – 73 points from their stars. It was nearly enough.
Maybe it’s a good sign for the Lakers, but in general, they needed to play their hearts out to barely beat the Thunder. That’s just the balance of power. The Lakers can’t use their usual size advantage with Gasol and Bynum, combining for 27 points and 6-21 from the field. Lucky for them, the refs felt gracious with the foul calling, in a game that saw 70 free throw attempts, with both teams making 67 of them.
But the Lakers weren’t about to give up on this series just yet. There’s fighting spirit to this team; More than last season against the Mavs. There’s pride, champions pride, from those still remaining from the championship days that look far and long gone. Not just Bryant. Steve Blake got idiotic death threats on twitter from people who should go to jail just for being idiots. He was big with 12 points, two big three pointers and 8 rebounds.
Ramons Sessions finally showed up, scoring 12 points. The Lakers need him in double figures every game to stay alive in this one. There aren’t that many players they can actually count on to light up the scoreboards. The Thunder have a guaranteed 60 points each night from their big three. The Lakers need to work much harder to go beyond those 60 points.
Again, the only one who seems to be able, at the moment, to go beyond the expectations, is Kobe Bryant. Criticize his shot selection and ball hogging all you like; Andrew Bynum looks like the younger Bynum, getting swallowed in between Perkins’ big body and Serge Ibaka’s blocking ability. Pau Gasol isn’t looking like someone who can go off for 20-10 nights like he did during his first three seasons with the team, on a constant basis.
Metta World Peace might not have had a great game and job of actually stopping Durant, but there are few players who can make Durant feel that uncomfortable, especially late in the game. The key is pushing Durant away from the basket and forcing him to work hard to get his points. He did score a few off turnovers late, but the ending was far from easy. The rest was simply Kobe posting up on Derek Fisher or anybody else that took their chances on stopping Bryant.
It’s hard stopping Kobe when he’s on fire, especially late in the game, when those impossible shots just keep on coming. But the Thunder didn’t trap him, which they should do more. Bryant loses himself in his own lore and myth late in the game. Passing hardly becomes an option, and traps; sending more shot blockers on him outside isn’t such a bad gamble to make. When the refs are so easy to blow the whistle in his favor, there aren’t that many strategies of actually stopping him.