Before the dagger, Durant, OKC dig in on D

May, 20, 2012
5/20/12
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Verrier By Justin Verrier
ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- The conversation between Thunder coach Scott Brooks and star pupil Kevin Durant that led to the lanky, “6-foot-9” forward checking the 6-6 Kobe Bryant down the stretch was a short one. Mostly because it wasn’t so much a discussion as it was an order.

“He said, ‘You get 'em,'" Durant recalled, laughing. “I had to go guard him. I couldn’t tell Coach no. I didn’t want to back down from the challenge.”

With Durant’s long limbs all up in his face and the Thunder big men fronting in the post, Bryant fired off 10 shots in the fourth quarter and connected on only two. He didn’t make any of the four shots he fired up with Durant guarding him; his only points against the OKC forward came on two free throws after Serge Ibaka fouled him on a closeout.

Up 11 early in the fourth after Bryant surged for 15 third-quarter points on 5-for-7 shooting, the Lakers as a whole shot just 31.8 percent in the final period and were held to just two field goals over the final 4:28, with the second a meaningless Kobe jumper as time expired.

Bryant took seven of his team’s nine attempts from the floor over the game’s final five minutes as a stiff Thunder defensive stand forced L.A. into a one-man show (a tragic comedy, of course), and helped seal a 103-100 victory and a commanding 3-1 series lead.

“He wants to guard him,” Brooks said. “We like putting Thabo [Sefolosha], James [Harden] and Kevin on him. It was about three and a half minutes to go, and I made the decision. I thought that was the right thing to do at the time. Kobe was making shots like he always seems to do, but I thought Kevin did a good job of using his length and bothering him.”

Harden also had success guarding L.A.’s big gunner, as Bryant shot 3-for-12 with Harden as his primary defender. But the third-year guard said he thought the switch from a bushy beard to the extend-o flyswatters Durant calls arms in Bryant’s face paid off.

Despite the results, Kobe wasn’t buying that defense.

“It was pretty much the same thing, except in the fourth quarter they crowd me and they shrink the floor,” Bryant said. “The driving lanes close off. [Serge] Ibaka’s more active coming off of rotations.

“But when you have the ball with the shot clock going down, it’s tough to get everybody in the right spots. So ...”

In his postgame tirade -- albeit one in a familiar cool-and-collected manner, his barbs sounding as laid-back as a Dirk Nowitzki news conference -- Bryant openly called out the Lakers’ big men for not being aggressive enough in the post, Pau Gasol in particular. With the burly Thunder walling off the strength of the Lakers’ offense, there was no other choice but to fire it up, in Kobe’s mind (on top of his usual beckoning instincts to try to save the day).

The Lakers’ frontcourt trio of Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Jordan Hill combined for just three rebounds and four shots in the final quarter, with Gasol hoisting up a whopping zero. After he hit four of 10 shots through the first three quarters, the only stats Gasol registered were two fouls and one whopper of a turnover with 33.9 seconds to go.

Bryant called for a more aggressive frontcourt. Lakers coach Mike Brown essentially concurred, but he also knew what they were up against.

“They had athletic, active bigs,” Brown said. “They’re long and athletic guys so they’re fronting our post and pulling over from the weak side, and it’s going to be hard to feed Bynum or Gasol or anybody on the front side of any play.”

While Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins did the dirty work -- including five rebounds from Perkins in the fourth quarter alone -- Durant took the spotlight, long before his late dagger essentially sealed the Lakers’ fate.

“We locked in on the defensive end,” Brooks said. “Kevin played the passing lane, and he was active with his hands. Kevin’s a great defender -- that’s what makes him a special player. He can play both ends of the floor.”
Justin Verrier is an NBA editor at ESPN.com.

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