Forty-two free throws is a lot of free throw attempts. Forty-one free throws made is a lot of makes. The Lakers got one, made the other, and walked out of Staples with a win in Game 4, 99-96.
We can talk about a lot of things. The way that the Lakers attacked the Thunder defensively, once again doing damage to Russell Westbrook who has been unable to find his jumper since Game 1. We can talk about Pau Gasol giving more effort even if he wasn’t that assertive offensively. We can talk about Kobe Bryant hitting one clutch shot late (and missing two with a turnover), and all his free throws. We can talk about a Lakers defense that on two key plays forced the ball out of Kevin Druant’s hands and into Serge Ibaka’s, and then forced a tough 30-foot three-pointer.
These were all part of it.
But really? It was the free throws, a 42-28 advantage for the Lakeshow.
Good, bad, ugly, they were what they were. You can argue that the league hates small markets and that the Lakers won because David Stern pushed some magical button. You’ll be an idiot, but you can say that. You can argue that the Lakers were more aggressive and earned those calls. But considering the Lakers drew six shooting fouls in the second half to create 27 free throws and that the Thunder drew six shooting fouls to create 14, it doesn’t really hold up. You can argue it was the Lakers’ size advantage, but the fact don’t bear that out, nor do they bear out that they were all bad fouls.
The officials lost control of this game early, during an early game scuffle between Russell Westbrook and, you guessed it, Metta World Peace, and spent the rest of it trying to gain control. And when that happens, ticky-tack perimeter fouls are called. And the Thunder were working for open shots, while the Lakers were driving to draw contact. It worked. Kobe Bryant absolutely worked over James Harden in drawing fouls on routine contact in a playoff game.
You can’t say the officials decided the game, but you can definitely look at them as the biggest weapon used.
The Lakers did get a number of things to go their way Friday night. Ramon Sessions finally contributed. Steve Blake hit two huge shots in the second half. Metta World Peace played terrific defense. Andrew Bynum was a defensive force, even if he went 0-6 in the second half from the field. They played well enough to win, when Kevin Durant’s desperation three wouldn’t go down. And they hit 41 of 42 free throws, which is just nuts and takes a world of mental discipline.
So now what? Now we get Game 4 on a back to back. Will the Lakers have the energy to keep up with the young Thunder on a back to back? Will playing two games on the road wear on the Thunder? Will the disappointment of this game, one they could have had if they had just fouled slightly less, haunt OKC into a sluggish performance? The Lakers are only down 2-1 with a chance to tie the series at home. They looked dead in the water just hours ago. But it’s funny what a few dozen trips to the line will do for you.
All of a sudden, the Lakers are getting the breaks those great Lakers teams get. And they’re taking advantage of them. Game 4 is Saturday.