For the second time in the series, the Lakers had a game in their hands, and for the second time, they let it get away. In the process, they allowed any realistic chance of advancing to get away, too.
This will be one the locals talk about for a while. Final score: Oklahoma City 103, Lakers 100. The Thunder lead 3-1, with Game 5 coming Monday in OKC.
Here are five takeaways:
1. Kobe Bryant continued attacking.
He came out of the gate hot Saturday, hitting three of his first five shots and earning four trips to the line in the first quarter en route to 10 points. At the half, Bryant had 16 points along with three assists. Certainly nothing to scoff at, but relative to what he did in the third quarter, it felt like a trifle. Bryant attacked relentlessly out of the break, pounding on Thabo Sefolosha in the high post, bullying him to favored spots on the floor before rising for baby jumpers. When he wasn't putting bruises on Sefolosha's upper body, Bryant went at the rim, earning seven free throws. He capped a brilliant 12 minutes with a 22-footer at the end of the quarter so tight against the buzzer, it made 0.4 look like an eternity in comparison.
Combined with the 18 free throw attempts he took in Game 3, Bryant now has taken 35 in the past two games after getting only nine attempts total in Games 1 and 2. This happens only if he's in full attack mode, sending all his energy forward, as opposed to settling for the outside game. When it happens, the results can be staggering.
2. Unfortunately, it came at a price.
While Kobe was red hot in the third quarter, he cooled off considerably in the fourth and, perhaps emboldened by the tear he had just finished, started forcing shots. He missed six of his first seven, and the one make was a brutally tough, don't-try-this-at-home baseline jumper on James Harden. In the process -- I'm talking about both the third and fourth quarters -- the post game with Andrew Bynum that served the Lakers so well in the first half was basically abandoned. Bynum had 11 shots and 14 points in the first half, and only four attempts in the second.
Not to say Bryant was the cause of Saturday's loss, but as brilliant as he was in the third, he shot the Lakers out of the fourth. The Lakers' offense, as productive as it has been through the first four games of the series, scoring 29, 27 and 24 points in the first three quarters, died down the stretch. Only 18 points, in part because Bryant made only two of his 10 shots (the second being a totally meaningless jumper at the buzzer).
There was no balance and very little ball movement. Blame his teammates for not capitalizing on opportunities or being aggressive enough -- Pau Gasol, for example, passed up an open shot off a pick-and-roll with Kobe, compounding the error by turning the ball over while trying to kick out to Metta World Peace on the perimeter. Kevin Durant jumped the pass and hit a 3-pointer from the top of the arc, tying the score at 98 with 33 seconds remaining. It was a horrible, horrible play from any player, let alone one of Gasol's caliber. Throw some blame at the coaching staff as well for not figuring out ways to penetrate an Oklahoma City defense once again fronting Bynum and working hard to deny post entries.
But in the end, it's telling that nine of the team's 18 fourth-quarter points came in the first three minutes with Kobe on the bench, two more just after his return, when Jordan Hill put back a Bryant miss, then one more on a technical free throw.
He finished with 38 points on 28 shots (he made 12), but combined with the free throws it shows how ball dominant Kobe was Saturday night. It had an impact on the offensive flow, for sure, even when things were going well. How much, we'll probably never know with certainty. But what was shaping up to be a spectacular game went south. Bryant is going to take plenty of flak for Saturday's result, and with cause.
3. Offensively, the Lakers received critical contributions from the supporting cast.
For most of the game, at least.
Nobody could complain about the work World Peace had done defensively through the first three games of the series. To paraphrase the great actor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, playing Roger Murdock in "Airplane" ("I'm the co-pilot!"), tell your old man to drag Durant up and down the court for 48 minutes. Yeah, KD gets his, but he led the league in scoring. The guy can play, and MWP has made him work for every inch. Offensively, though, Metta had been a major drag. On Saturday, he came alive. The outside shot that had failed him so badly in the previous two games was on, as he hit four of eight triples, including two key jumpers early in the fourth, on his way to 14 points.
Ramon Sessions finished with a strong 10 points, showing good aggression going to the bucket, even while his jumper remains toxic. He added five assists as well. Hill had four offensive rebounds and a block. The "other guys" were a presence, always critical for the Lakers.
4. In the fourth quarter, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook took over.
They were both good through three, no question. Westbrook hit 11-of-20 for 27 points, while Durant had 20 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. Moreover, KD was clearly building some momentum, scoring eight points in the third. But together, OKC's dynamic duo was a force down the stretch, combining for 21 points on only nine field goal attempts, plus another 10 trips to the line. Westbrook displayed the full arsenal, hitting midrange shots off the screen-and-roll, but also attacking the basket and finishing at the rack, while Durant provided the daggers from distance late. They were the fuel of a Thunder attack shooting 67 percent in the final period, compared to the mid-40's in the other three. Each came up with a critical steal, as well.
The Lakers simply had no answer.
5. Pau Gasol didn't bring enough.
It's been a season-long struggle for Mike Brown's Lakers to find the most effective way to use Gasol and an equally long slog for Gasol to figure out the best way for him to function. Too often the offense has reduced him to a perimeter playmaker, not someone who can score in the post, where on a points-per-play basis, he's still the Lakers' best weapon. Gasol, in turn, has too often allowed himself to be swallowed up, not taking matters into his own hands and forcing the issue. On Saturday, he did a lot of dirty work around the ball. Setting screens, crashing the glass to try to create second chances and so on. But he's not supposed to be Udonis Haslem. Gasol is a two-time champion and many times an All-Star. His Game 4 line -- 10 points, five boards, two assists -- isn't good enough, and that's before the aforementioned turnover, which was critical.
Critics will note he had no shots in the fourth quarter. So will Gasol. His critics will say it's because of a lack of aggression. He'll say it's reflective of a shrinking role as a scorer and a lack of touches in good position to attack. In the end, it's some from column A, some from column B, the quantities varying depending on the night.