1. Kobe Stars In The Late Lake No-Show
You'd think the Thunder would be capable of climbing the NBA ladder without the Lakers doing everything they can to help them up the final rungs. You would not expect Bryant, who had every Lakers assist for much of the night, to be the one helping add to Durant's playoff résumé.
The Lakers, having already ceded youthful energy to the Thunder, lost their supposed veteran poise as well in the final two minutes, letting a seven-point lead turn into a 77-75 Thunder victory, the type of collapse that is impossible to compensate for against a superior opponent.
Oh, and speaking of résumés, Kobe is lucky his has so much padding. It will cushion the fall he took in this game, and is the only thing keeping him from the end-to-end roasting that would have awaited LeBron James should he have failed this much in the clutch. After negotiating his way to 20 points despite a paucity of good looks (in addition to handing out all four Lakers assists through the first 27 minutes), Bryant missed all four of his shots in the final 5:31, had a turnover that led directly to a Durant dunk and had another tipped pass go off his arm and out of bounds.
This wasn't a case of Bryant playing his gastroenteritis-drained guts out and his teammates failing to match him, like Game 6 in Denver. This was a collective effort putting the Lakers in position to get the victory in Oklahoma City they need to win the series, and Kobe bobbling it away.
Kobe's past performances prohibit us from saying he never comes through in the clutch. But his recent history tells us it's been four years since he hit a game-winning shot in the playoffs, and the ledger is starting to pile up on the negative side. This is not about discussing the totality of his career. Not when there is the immediate task of competing for the 2012 championship at hand.
Kobe talks about his desire to give his supporters as much ammo as possible for the debate about his place among the greats and now, with the Lakers down 2-0 heading for back-to-back games at Staples Center this weekend, there's a distinct possibility that the conference finals and NBA Finals will arrive without him having a chance to contribute anything else to the argument.
Bryant credited a "great play by Durant" for the steal, blamed the missed shots on being "too far from the basket" and that was all he had to say about his performance down the stretch.
On the court, his facial expressions showed the fury he felt about not getting the inbounds pass on the Lakers' last real chance at winning this game, with the ball out of bounds on the sideline, 5.7 seconds remaining and the Thunder ahead by a point.
"Kobe was coming up the middle of the floor," Blake said, describing the play. "I was in the corner to be an outlet. Russell Westbrook ran off of me. I was wide open."
It was a sensible basketball play. Open man gets the shot. It's never that simple anymore. If this were LeBron and the Heat, it would be LeBron's fault for not getting the ball, right?
Durant was suffering through the same type of criticism for his unwillingness to assert himself throughout much of the game. The observations came over Twitter and even from his own coach.
"He was looking to pass too much tonight," Scott Brooks said. "Do you tell your player, 'Stop passing'? It's hard. He was passing up good shots. You only pass up a good look to get a better look."
Brooks described the shots Durant created as "lateral looks." Most would consider Serge Ibaka jump shots instead of Durant jump shots a downgrade. Yet through the first 45 minutes of the game they each had 11 field goal attempts.
But Durant asserted himself in the final 2½ minutes. Seconds after a James Harden basket cut the Lakers' lead to five points, Durant, picking Bryant up near midcourt, stole Kobe's pass and swooped in for an uncontested dunk. He tried a 3-pointer that missed, and after Harden tipped a Bryant jumper and got ahead for a fast-break layup, Bryant missed a 3-pointer and gave the Thunder a chance to take the lead.
Durant dribbled to the right. A screen freed him from World Peace, then he went around Andrew Bynum and pulled up along the baseline, lofting a shot over Pau Gasol. The ball hit the rim and rolled in, the second friendly bounce he has had on that basket for a game-winning shot in these playoffs.
"I was close to the rim," Durant said. "I just tried to put some touch on it. And it went in."
In the process, his legitimacy as a superstar went up. We demand that they come through in the clutch, and Durant just did it again in these playoffs. The next step is to do so in June.
The NBA Finals just got a little more distant for Kobe and the Lakers. Their defense was markedly better than in the Game 1 blowout. The open jumpers Westbrook had in the opener turned into contested shots over Bynum's arms in Game 2. The Lakers created 13 turnovers, with Bryant jumping the passing lanes and even trying to draw a charge, things that were neither his forte nor his preference, as he outlined colorfully to reporters during the off day. They found Bynum and Gasol inside for a combined 34 points. They dragged down the pace of the game to their tempo. They had even turned the Thunder crowd's noise level down to "putting at Augusta National."
And they have nothing to show for it.
"They took it from us," Blake said. "But we gave it away at the same time."
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
MVP: If Kevin Durant's 22 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists -- all team highs -- weren't enough, he also hit the go-ahead basket with 18 seconds left after his team made a furious push in the final two minutes to snatch victory from defeat. KD closed the door on this game, and maybe even the Lakers' season.
Defining moment: It wasn't so much a moment but a series of events from Kobe Bryant that turned this game. In the final 1:47, Kobe had a turnover that led to a Durant dunk, a bad pass from Steve Blake go off his arm for another turnover, and a missed 3-pointer with his team only trailing by one point. During that sequence the Thunder turned a 5-point deficit into a one-point lead and a win.
X factor: The Lakers lost this game but their defense deserves a lot of credit for keeping them in it. They adjusted their coverage on OKC's pick-and-roll, rotated well to force turnovers and held the high-octane Thunder to only 77 points in the process. Their adjustments may not have earned them the win, but their effort on that end was fantastic.
Recap | Box score
MVP: After 48 hours of handwringing over how the Celtics' offense -- worrisome even in its most dynamic moments -- would generate points against a top-three defense with Paul Pierce hampered by a tender MCL, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo replied: chill. The duo combined for 51 points on 33 shots, and added 19 rebounds and 18 assists to round things out. And Pierce? He just put up a 24 and 12.
Defining moment: After a fast and loose first quarter that mostly went Philly's way, the veteran C's, aplomb incarnate, bore down in the second. Boston shot 13-of-20 in the decisive frame; got 13 points, seven rebounds, three assists, and a steal from the aforementioned KG; and held the Sixers to a 6-of-19 mark from the floor. They flipped an early deficit on its ear, and never trailed again.
That was Boston's night: Put a bunch of hoops categories in a hat -- free throws, assists, field goal percentage, rebounds, turnovers, etc. -- mix it up, pull one out, and you'll have chosen an area in which the Celtics dominated the Sixers on Wednesday. Hard to win a game when you lose at all the things it's made up of.
3. Wednesday's Best
Kevin Garnett, Celtics: Taking spryness to another level, Garnett scored 27 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and helped the Celtics beat the 76ers 107-91 on Wednesday night and take a 2-1 series lead.
4. Wednesday's Worst
Lakers collapse: Just when it looked like this was a team that would make the Thunder squirm, the Lakers coughed up a seven-point lead in the last two minutes. And those who relish the certainties in life went away disappointed, too: Kobe Bryant did not take the last shot for the Lakers. Maybe a good thing -- he had already missed his last five in the game.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Dunk Of The Night
8. Quote Of The Night
"That's what great players are supposed to do. They're supposed to take on the challenge at the end of the game and he did. He won the game for them, basically."
-- Lakers coach Mike Brown, on Kevin Durant rising up for the Thunder.
9. Serge Ibaka Is iBlocka
10. Stats Check
The Thunder trailed the Lakers 75-68 with two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, but rallied to win 77-75. Before Oklahoma City, the last two NBA teams to win a playoff game by rallying from a deficit of seven or more points within the final two minutes of the fourth quarter were the Heat in Game 5 of the 2011 Eastern Conference finals versus the Bulls, and the Spurs in Game 2 of the 1999 Western Conference finals against the Trail Blazers.