Kobe Bryant, a game after failing miserably in the clutch, returned to himself Friday night in leading the Los Angeles Lakers to a desperation 99-96 victory over the Oklahoma Thunder. But the young and free-wheeling team still lead the veteran, plodding Lakers 2-1 in the series, begging a question:
How much energy remains within the Lakers?
The slower, bigger, older team must face the youthful, spry, physically stellar Thunder tonight at the Staples Center, less than 24 hours after the conclusion of L.A.’s dramatic Game 3 win that, at the very least, prolonged its season.
Bryant, who had 36 points and was 18-for-18 from the foul line, had a simple answer: “Plenty,” he said.
That sounds good, but is it reasonable that the Lakers can come back on no rest and muster the effort needed to contain the explosive Thunder?
On that question, Bryant was philosphical but honest. “If it’s an up-and-down game,” he said. “We don’t have a shot. . . ‘We’ve got to just slow down the game. Play our pace, play our tempo, and we’ll give ourselves a great opportunity.”
They did that much of Friday night. Bryant shot horribly from the floor — 9-for-25 — but he attacked the basket and forced OKC to make a strong defensive play or foul him. At the line, he was money.
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In fact, the Lakers’ missed but one of 43 foul shots — by Andrew Bynum. “We fouled too much,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said, simply.
Oklahoma City’s bench celebrated a 92-87 lead on Westbrook’s breakaway dunk with 2:55 to play, but the Lakers trimmed away with Gasol’s free throws, Bryant’s layup and several possessions of tenacious defense. Bryant’s free throws put the Lakers ahead with 1:09 to play.
Kevin Durant immediately hit a go-ahead jumper with a hand squarely in his face, but Bryant added two more free throws – his 15th and 16th – to put Los Angeles ahead 95-94. The Thunder finished 26 of 28 from the line, but the Lakers went 17 for 18 in the fourth quarter alone.
”We knew they were going to approach the game with a lot of intensity down 0-2,” Durant said. ”We did a great job of fighting back and taking a lead. We can play any type of basketball. That’s what’s good about our team. We can play fast. We can play slow. . . We just didn’t come out on top.”
A Lakers win tonight send the series back to Oklahoma tied at 2-2. Last time the Lakers were there, they blew a seven-point lead in the last two minutes, something they rue. An L.A. loss gives OKC a chance to close of Los Angeles in Game 5. So, tonight’s game is the key game in the series.