|Kevin Durant and the Thunder are one win from going back to the conference final. (US Presswire)|
LOS ANGELES – After Game 3, Kobe Bryant had talked about the competitiveness he sees in the Thunder's Big Three, the kind of fight and tenacity they saw in him when they were growing up.
Clearly, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are all grown up now. And after ripping a 13-point lead away from Bryant's Lakers – and a four-point lead with 4 1-2 minutes left – the Thunder's maturing stars are one win away from their second straight trip to the Western Conference finals.
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"As it left my hand, I'm thinking, 'If this doesn't go in, it's going to be a terrible shot," said Durant, who had 31 points as the Thunder beat the Lakers 103-100 to take a 3-1 lead in their conference semifinals series. "'They're going to criticize me a lot.'"
Game 5 is Monday night in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder can close out the Lakers and end Bryant's chase for a sixth championship for this year.
The Thunder overcame a dominant first-half performance from Andrew Bynum, and baited the Lakers into running everything through Bryant down the stretch by fronting Bynum, crowding Bryant and taking advantage of a suspiciously passive Pau Gasol.
The Lakers, on their way down in the second round for the second straight year, forgot about Bynum down the stretch as Bryant went 2-for-10 in the fourth. After scoring 14 in the first half, Bynum had only four after halftime and two in the fourth.
"In the second half what they did was front Andrew," said Bryant, who had 38 points, but only seven in the fourth. "So when they front Andrew, and in the fourth quarter they crowd me, the other guys have got to be more aggressive. Simple as that."
It didn't take much prodding to get Bryant to identify who that was. It was the same culprit who, in the third quarter of Game 3, was looking to pass on consecutive trips when Bryant ran plays for him and got him the ball close to the basket.
"Pau's got to be more assertive," Bryant said. "He's the guy they're leaving. When he catches the ball, he's looking to pass. He's got to be aggressive. He's got to shoot the ball. He's got to drive the ball to the basket, and he will be the next game."
Here is the sequence Bryant is talking about:
After Bryant tied it at 98-98 with two free throws, Westbrook slipped on the court -- a fairly common occurrence on a day when the Clippers and Lakers both played playoff games on different courts laid over the ice surface at Staples Center -- giving the Lakers one more realistic chance to hold on. Bryant passed to Gasol along the baseline, about 10 feet from the basket, but Gasol threw an errant pass for Metta World Peace for a turnover leading to Durant's deciding 3-pointer.
"He's just looking to swing the ball too much," Bryant said. "He's got to shoot it."
Gasol, who had only 10 points and five rebounds, said it was "one play, one mistake. ... It's one play -- obviously at a critical time -- but I don't feel like we lost the game because of one turnover. ... The ball movement wasn't good on our part."
World Peace fell on the sword for both of them, taking the blame for Gasol's turnover. When asked why the Lakers didn't adjust to the Thunder's fronting tactics against Bynum and why the ball movement stopped, he said, "Let me see how I can answer that without giving you a good quote."
Some things are better left unsaid.
The Lakers blew a seven-point lead with two minutes left in Game 2 and came back from a five-point deficit with just under three minutes left in Game 3. Now, they found themselves clinging to a six-point lead, 96-90, with 4:29 left in Game 4 after Bryant hit a high-arcing, turn-around jumper over James Harden. Durant took over the defensive assignment on Bryant after that, and it would be his last basket until a meaningless jumper dropped through just before the buzzer.
"There was no conversation," Durant said about coach Scott Brooks' decision to put him on Bryant down the stretch. "He just said, 'Go get him.'"
Bynum, who had 14 points on 7-for-11 shooting with seven rebounds in the first half, was as quiet as Gasol was passive after that. He couldn't get any touches with Kendrick Perkins fronting him in the post, and the Lakers failed to make the adjustment, which was supposed to be swinging the ball to the weak side and dumping it down to Bynum with Perkins sealed off and out of position.
Bynum called the fronting tactic "last-ditch, 'I can't guard somebody'" defense.
"Terrible loss," Bynum said. "I wasn't part of the game in the third and fourth quarter. When they start fronting, that's an adjustment. You can't keep running the same offense. You have to make them pay for that."
Now, the Lakers will pay for their many sins in this series -- letting a seven-point lead melt away in the final two minutes of Game 2 at Oklahoma City, and spontaneously combusting again with a passive Gasol and a Kobe-centric offense down the stretch after Bynum had put them in position to tie the series up 2-2.
"I was forced to take tough shots and they didn't fall for me tonight," Bryant said. "I made a couple, felt like I got fouled on a couple and didn't get the whistle. But still and all, they were tough shots. So either we've got to free me up to get better looks in the fourth quarter or other guys have to be more aggressive, one or the other."
Needless to say, whatever's going on in Lakerland now, Durant doesn't need to worry about any criticism over the shot he took -- and made -- to put the Thunder one step closer to the conference finals.