The Lakers just won the first of two must wins.
Now they have to take care of business and win on Saturday. Playing back to back games is never ideal, but at least it gives the Lakers the opportunity to tie the series in one swift motion.
If you watched how the Thunder dismantled the former champs, Dallas, then you understand the importance of game three's victory. Dallas forced OKC into two very tough opening games, and ended up losing both by four total points. Dallas was blown out in game three, and then lost by just six in the closer. With LA's victory comes a dent in the armor of OKC. They finally lost a close game. The Lakers closed out strong and won 99-96, handing OKC their first loss of the postseason.
Usually a win like this for a former championship team isn't all that exciting, but the way the Thunder have been closing, a win like this is monumental, especially following game two's meltdown. The Lakers continued some of the positives of game two, and even overcame what looked to be a deadly run by James Harden to finish ahead in game three.
During half time of the Boston-Philly game, the ESPN telecast had a gaffe and showed a clip that stated, "Thunder at Lakers - Next on ESPN, Thunder lead series 2-1." I joked with some people that the fix was in. Well, 42 free throws later, maybe I was right. Kobe benefited from some interesting calls, and the Lakers sank 41-42 free throws, with Kobe shooting 18-18. But OKC shot 26-28, so I'd say that the refs were just a little happy with the whistle.
The ESPN telecast jumped to the game with the Lakers up 6-0 at the 9:58 mark. This is just one reason why I really dislike national telecasts. As a Lakers fan, I would rather watch the beginning of LA rather than the end of Boston vs Philly. Although entertaining, I care about the Lakers game. I wanted to see how LA would respond in the opening minutes. I guess I'll never know. But the crowd sure was loud, so something good must have happened. I did get to see Ramon Sessions have a nice start. Sessions finished a backdoor cut to make the game 8-0. Then he hit a floater in the lane off of a pick and roll to make the game 10-4. Kobe followed with a handoff in the far corner for a 20ft jumper, swish.
Then Andrew Bynum played some great pick and roll defense and forced Kevin Durant to miss a tough, contested jumper from the far elbow. Bynum followed that up with an offensive rebound and dish to Pau in the lane for a dunk. Kobe followed with a steal on a backdoor cut, and he hit Sessions with the outlet for a dunk, putting LA ahead 16-4. Following the timeout, KD hit a floater. Then OKC got a steal as Pau forced a pass to Kobe, but Metta hustled back on defense and forced KD to lose the ball out of bounds. Little hustle plays like that are what save a game. Kobe followed with a one dribble pull up jumper from 16ft. Then Kobe was whistled for a dubious foul on James Harden. Despite the foul, Metta gathered the Lakers and barked orders to calm the guys down.
Then Derek Fisher had his only positive moment while guarding Kobe. Hoping to take care of the mismatch, Kobe called for the ball at the free throw line with the much smaller Fisher on him. Metta passed up Kobe and instead hit Blake in the near corner. Unfortunately, Blake ended up throwing the ball away, and Fisher scored in transition.
Bynum finished the quarter strong with his pet move. Bynum took two dribbles at the near mid block and turned baseline for the turnaround jumper. He missed, but he was fouled. He sank both of the free throws and the Lakers closed the quarter up 23-15. Kobe finished the quarter 3-6 for 6 points, 1 rebound, 3 assists, and 2 steals. Kobe really hurt OKC with quick, decisive moves. Bynum went 1-4 for 4 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists. Pau went 2-5 for 4 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, and 2 turnovers. Pau's aggression on the glass was great to see. Westbrook really struggled, shooting 1-4 for 2 points and 1 rebound, and he was subbed out early at the 6:01 mark. Durant went 2-5 for 4 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 turnovers.
In the second quarter, the Thunder closed the gap and cut the deficit to 3 points within the first two minutes. However, the Lakers played some great pick and roll defense and forced Westbrook into a turnover that led to a Blake 3. Westbrook ran the high pick and roll and attacked right. Pau did a great job of hedging, so Westbrook backed out and used the pick again, this time to go left. Pau worked hard, and cut Westbrook off in the lane. Westbrook elevated and tried to kick out, but Barnes shot the gap and ended up pushing the court and hitting Blake for a 3. Blake followed with a backdoor cut and assist from Pau for a layup. Sessions followed with a nice aggressive take to the basket that led to made free throws and then he hit a 9ft fading jumper in the lane.
Despite the game being a must win, coach Brown carefully monitored minutes. Kobe and Drew checked back in at the 6:09 mark, their normal rotation from the regular season, with the score at 32-33. Kobe immediately picked up his third foul, but coach Brown trusted him to play smart and he let Kobe finish the quarter. Following some Kobe free throws, Jordan Hill came up big with an amazing block on Kevin Durant. Durant dribbled at the near wing and Metta popped the ball out. Durant regathered it 5ft behind the far wing 3, danced a bit, and blew by MWP to attack the baseline and get to the rim. With KD coming with a full head of steam, Hill rotated to the far block and met KD at the top of his jump. Hill went up with two hands straight in the air and ended up swatting KD's dunk attempt.
Then Russell Westbrook lost his composure and freaked out. Let me just say, if this had been Metta who acted so petulantly, he would have been suspended for throwing those elbows. Westbrook dribbled at the far top 3 and got into the lane. Hill rotated and swatted his layup, Ibaka missed the tip, and Westbrook regathered the ball at the near block. Bynum swatted Westbrook again, the ball squirted out, and Westbrook dove for it on the floor. MWP immediately ran over and stood over Westbrook as he went for the jump ball. While on the floor, Westbrook began throwing elbows and swinging his arms wildly to prevent MWP from getting a handle on the ball. Westbrook freaked out, popped Metta in the back of the knee, and got upset that MWP's leg gave out and dropped on him. MWP dropped a knee on Westbrook, and Westbrook got up and acted all hard.
Every action has a consequence, I guess Westbrook doesn't understand this. The refs awarded double technicals, but Jeff Van Gundy stood up for MWP and called out the officials, stating, "The double technical is the biggest cop out there is in officiating. What does anyone want World Peace to do right there? He drops on his leg only because he gets hit." Two minutes later, Westbrook and MWP had another run in. Westbrook ran the high pick and roll with Durant at the near top 3. Westbrook attacked left, crossed back over right, and ran into the back of KD. Westbrook lost the ball, recovered it at the near side half court, and tried to get away was MWP hounded him. Westbrook attacked left and tripped, but the refs awarded MWP a foul. Westbrook was clearly flustered.
Metta finished the quarter with a 3 from the far side. Sessions drove and kicked, setting up Metta for the open swish and putting LA ahead 50-47 to enter the half. Kobe finished 0-3 for 7 points and 1 rebound. Kobe persistently attacked the rim and was awarded free throws all night. Bynum went 1-3 for 4 points, 1 rebound, and 1 block. Pau went 1-1 for 2 points and 1 steal. Westbrook had a great quarter, going 3-6 for 12 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, and 1 turnover. His aggressive drives led to free throws. Durant went 3-5 for 9 points, 1 steal, and 1 turnover. Both Kobe and Harden entered the half with 3 fouls apiece.
Kobe started the third quarter with a beautiful finger roll. Kobe dribbled from the far wing and attacked the baseline. Kobe went hard to the rim, elevated, and finished a nice right handed finger roll in traffic after absorbing the contact. A minute later, Bynum missed a turnaround jumper that didn't hit the rim, and Jeff Van Gundy exposed him for his knack to take a dribble to gather himself. Three minutes later, Bynum made up for it. Kobe missed a long jumper and Bynum tracked the ball down to the far mid corner. Bynum quickly attacked the basket to get off a shot before a shot clock violation. Bynum missed, but Kobe gathered the offensive rebound and fed Pau for a dunk, making the score 56-53. OKC came right back and used a play that the Nuggets ran to death on the Lakers. Durant stood at the far wing, went right, waited for Perkins to adjust his screen from one side to the other, and then attacked left to hit the 16ft pull up jumper.
Durant followed with this ridiculous shot. Durant dribbled at the far top, used a pick, attacked left, and threw up a ridiculous running 14ft floater off balance. Durant shot the ball because he figured he'd get the call. He didn't get the call, but he made the tough bank shot. Kobe followed with a floater in the lane, and then he drew a foul on Fish at the far mid wing as Fisher bodied him up. Kobe sank the free throws.
Then Jack Nickolson got involved. Following a dubious foul on Barnes, Nicholson called out the ref and even stated, "You were behind that play," referring to the ref's position. This led to some great banter from Van Gundy regarding Nicholson. The Lakers entered the fourth down 69-70. Kobe finished 3-8 for 9 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 turnover. Bynum went 0-4 for 4 points, 5 rebounds, and 1 turnover. Pau went 1-1 for 2 points, 2 assists, 1 block, and 2 turnovers. Westbrook went 2-5 for 4 points and 3 rebounds. KD went 3-6 for 10 points, 1 assist, 1 block, and 1 turnover.
With 12 minutes to seal the deal, the Lakers and Thunder had an up and down fourth quarter. Following a bunch of free throws, Andrew Bynum committed the only missed Laker free throw of the game. Drew came up short at the 9:15 mark, missing his first but swishing the second. Durant followed with another ridiculous shot. Durant caught a back door pass at the near block, lost his handle, recovered it at the far block, and threw up a scoop shot as he was falling over.
Kobe responded by killing his former teammate, Derek Fisher. First he backed down from the near wing to the near mid corner. Fish bodied him up, but Kobe hit the baseline fade. The next possession, Kobe hit Pau, reposted, caught the ball at the near elbow, shook baseline, turned middle, and hit the 13ft fade over Fisher. Imagine how many times Kobe has done this in practice with Fisher, it must be countless.
Then James Harden put a scare in the heart of LA. First he forced Kobe into a tough jumper and leaked out for the dunk. Then he tipped a pass as Barnes advanced the ball up court. Barnes was lazy, and Harden ran it down to the far side. Harden gathered the ball, Pau protected the rim, so Harden fired up the 3 from the far side, swish. This 5 point run made the score 78-83 with 6:39 to go. The run was reminiscent of game two's meltdown.
LA called timeout, and Steve Blake responded. First Blake ran a high pick and roll with Kobe. Blake attacked left, KD didn't hedge because he didn't want to leave Kobe, and Blake hit the open 15ft jumper from the far mid wing. Then Blake ran it again. KD, once again, didn't hedge due to Kobe, Westbrook went under the screen, and Blake nailed the open 3 from the far wing, tie game.
Westbrook and Durant responded with dunks in transition, making the score 97-92 with 2:41 to go. Kobe responded by setting up Pau for a trip to the line, and Pau sank both. Then Metta made a great defensive play, recovering to the post and swatting Perkins. Kobe responded with a gorgeous dribble drive to the bucket. Kobe used a Pau pick to dribble to the top 3, Kobe crossed between his legs, performed a half crossover, hesitated, and blew by Harden to go right and to the bucket. Then Kobe planted his feet and shielded Perkins with his body to finish the righty layup high off the glass, making the score 91-92 with 1:32 to go. Kobe followed that by pulling off a veteran swim move and locking up Harden's shoulder. Kobe drew the foul and sank both free throws. Then Kobe got Westbrook to foul him as he got him to bite on a pump at the near mid corner. Kobe sank both, putting LA up 95-94 with 33 seconds to go.
Metta followed with the defensive play of the game. Metta pressed KD 35ft from the basket. KD crossed over Metta and attacked into the lane. Pau rotated and left Ibaka at the far mid corner. KD hit Ibaka, but Metta quickly flew over there and jumped for the block. Ibaka pumped, getting the fly by, but this allowed Bynum enough time to rotate over and force Ibaka to shoot a tough contested jumper. Ibaka missed, but KD gathered the offensive rebound at the near block. Metta snuck up on KD under the rim and stripped him. Metta promptly sank both free throws, 97-94.
The Thunder easily hit Perkins on an inbound play making the score 97-96. Perkins was left open as Bynum hedged hard to prevent KD from getting a 3. Kobe calmly sank two clutch free throws, putting LA up by three. With no timeouts, OKC pushed the floor. KD took the handoff at the near wing, circled the perimeter, and used a Perkins pick at the top. Pau hedged it perfectly and forced KD into a tough, contested 30ft 3 from straight ahead. The shot almost dropped, but it missed. Then Bynum swatted Ibaka on the putback, game over.
Kobe finished the quarter 3-8, 8-8 on free throws, for 14 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, and 1 turnover. Kobe's aggression won the game for LA. He hit 18-18 free throws and made numerous big plays down the stretch. Although he struggled with his jumper, shooting 9-25, 0-1 from deep, he attacked the basket and poured in 36 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, and just 2 turnovers. Bynum finished the quarter 0-2 for 3 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 blocks. Pau went 0-1 for 4 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 block. Westbrook went 1-3 for 3 points, 1 rebound, and 1 steal. KD went 4-7 for 8 points, 3 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 turnover.
In a must win game, Mike Brown effectively balanced the minutes of his starters. Drew played the most at 40, but the Lakers should have enough in the tank for today's game. Although Drew struggled, shooting 2-13, he did attack, like Kobe, and he sank 11-12 free throws, for 15 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 blocks, and 1 turnover. Pau finished 4-8 for 12 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal, 2 blocks, and an uncharacteristic 4 turnovers. Westbrook struggled mightily, shooting 7-18, 0-3 from deep, for 21 points, 9 rebounds, just 1 assist, 2 steals and 1 turnover. He was really off his game. Durant went 12-23, 1-4 from deep, for 31 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals, 1 block, and 5 turnovers.
Let's see if LA can follow up this strong performance and win Saturday to tie the series.
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