Everyone expected this to be a series of close games, of exciting finishes. In the end, it would be the team with the calm demeanor, the team that played like they seen pressure like this a thousand times and knew how to handle it that was going to win.
Oklahoma City, of course.
Thursday — in a rockin’ loud building that had the volume of a 1984 Van Halen concert at key points — it was the young Oklahoma Thunder that executed their game plan. It was their star Kevin Durant that out dueled Kobe Bryant. It was the Thunder role players that made plays.
This time it was the Thunder with the win, 101-96. The Lakers still lead the series 2-1 but Oklahoma City can tie it up on Saturday.
It was the first NBA playoff game ever for Oklahoma City and the fans were ready — everyone in the crowd put on the Smurf-blue shirts and screamed like Jamie Lee Curtis in a slasher film. It was a refreshing bit of passion, a contrast to the seemingly jaded Lakers fans. But early on the Lakers just ignored it and played like they are the defending champions. Los Angeles opened the game on a 10-0 run fueled by Thunder missed shots, which stunned the
Smurfs crowd and quieted the Ford Center. The Lakers started out hitting their first seven shots, including previously cold Derek Fisher and Ron Artest. They started out playing with the poise defending NBA champions.
But these Thunder are relentless. They fought back to stay in the game, to stay close. They made runs throughout the game, turning a couple Lakers misses or turnovers into fast points and getting within four, only to have the Lakers brush it aside by pounding the ball inside to their great advantage in the paint. Suddenly the lead would be 10 again.
And so it went. Then the Thunder made a 10-1 run to close out the third quarter — a Russell Westbrook dunk, a James Harden three, a Durant three — and trailed by only one. As it had been in game two — as it was expected to be all series — it was now about the team that could execute under pressure. And most expected that to be the Lakers, what with the banners ad the rings and the coach and Kobe and Fisher.
Not Thursday night. This was Oklahoma City’s big night.
Durant flat out beat Bryant. The Thunder switched Durant on to defending him and Kobe went 2 for 10 and settled for jump shots with the long arm of Durant in his face (Kobe was 1 of 9 on jumpers in the quarter). When the Lakers won a close game at home on Tuesday he was 4 of 7 in the fourth, and those 7 shots were closer (more at the elbow, fewer beyond the three point line. Durant changed that, and at the same time got hot on offense and poured in 12 fourth-quarter points.
As a team the Thunder pressured and the Lakers gladly settled. That’s how the Lakers ended up taking 31 threes (making 10). In the fourth, Los Angeles went 5 for 15 on shots from 15 feet or more out. Meanwhile Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol had just four shots total. The Lakers went away from their advantage inside to shoot jumpers. Ones they missed.
It was Oklahoma City’s night.
The Thunder are growing right before our eyes. You can see a smart young team soaking in the lessons of the playoffs, and Thursday night applying them. That’s what makes game four interesting. The Thunder and their fans will swarm like piranha sensing blood in the water. They will be able to taste a tied series. But these Lakers play better when challenged. They have the experience if they choose to call on it. Phil Jackson knows how to make adjustments and get the team to feed the big men inside. Kobe Bryant isn’t going to go 2 for 10 in the clutch twice. Is he?
Maybe, with the long arm of Durant in his face.What we have now is a real playoff series.