Lakers' 95-94 close-out victory over Oklahoma City features various contributions
With the clock winding down, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant brought the ball up the floor, and looked to fulfill a role many expect from him. The Lakers trailed by one in Game 6 against Oklahoma City with 14 seconds remaining, a game that may not bear season-ending consequences for the Lakers, but could end a series that featured many twists and turns along the way. And what better way to end it than having the Black Mamba orchestrate another game-winning shot.
As ESPN analyst Mark Jackson said as the game neared its final stages, "Put the ball in the best player on the floor's hands and live with the results." So with six seconds remaining, Bryant drove past Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook toward the near baseline. Bryant stopped short of the lane and squared up along the near post, pump faked and then pulled away for a fadeaway jumper. The shot rimmed out, but Lakers forward Pau Gasol grabbed the rebound and gave the Lakers a one-point lead with .5 seconds left. Following the timeout, Westbrook's missed three-pointer from the far corner made the Lakers' 95-94 series-clinching victory official, marking the third consecutive year the Lakers advanced past the first round of the playoffs, the team's seventh victory in the last eight close-out games and improving the team's record to 28-14 in close-out games during Bryant's 13-year career.
The last play perfectly served as a microcosm of the entire game. It featured plenty of heart-beating moments. The result proved unpredictable. And the Lakers managed to stave off a loud and blue Oklahoma City crowd because of various contributions. So it was only fitting that on a play that appeared to mark Bryant's seventh game-winner this season, Gasol helped recover from Bryant's missed shot. Gasol had only nine points on four of 11 shooting, but finished with 18 rebounds, including the last one that ultimately decided the game.
Bryant's conversation with Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant and guard Westbrook dealt with the long-term future. "I told them they were incredible basketball players, for them to keep working and they're going to be a team we're going to have to deal with for years to come," Bryant told ESPN's Lisa Salters, which perfectly summed up the Lakers' highly competitive six-game series against the youthful and athletic Thunder.
Gasol's immediate reaction after his game-winning putback revealed the Lakers' short-term future as they meet the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference semifinals, with Game 1 beginning Sunday at Staples Center. As soon as the shot went in, Gasol roared, approached Lakers guard Derek Fisher (11 points on four of eight shooting) at the top of the key, chest bumped him and briefly locked arms. Though the Lakers' Game 6 performance didn't replicate their sheer Game 5 dominance and more appropriately demonstrated how they had to claw and survive their way through the first round, the late-game heroics and the various contributions are two entities that surely can bring the team closer together and play even sharper beginning in the semifinals.
In a game that featured nine ties and 15 lead changes, the Lakers couldn't comfortably secure a 91-84 lead with 5:09 remaining. But various players made key plays in the final minutes to ensure the Lakers' victory. After Durant's layup gave the Thunder a 94-91 lead with 2:30 remaining -- Oklahoma City's largest lead of the night -- Gasol set a high screen on Durant, Bryant drove to the far corner and made a pull-up jumper, cutting the gap to 94-93 with with 2:11 left in the game. On the next possession, Lakers forward Lamar Odom blocked Nick Collison's putback, a play that marked Odom's third block of the game and stopped the Thunder from answering. Two possessions later, Odom grabbed the rebound off Westbrook's missed three-pointer, keeping the Lakers within striking distance, trailing 94-93 with just a minute remaining in the contest.
The Lakers' various contributions weren't just prevalent late in the game. Let's start with the third quarter where Bryant went into scoring mode, a rightful approach considering his hot hand. With the Lakers holding only a 53-52 lead at the 10:42 mark in the third quarter, Bryant scored six unanswered points, the team's next eight points and finished with 16 of his team-high 32 points in the third period. Coming off a timeout with 10:41 remaining, Bryant manned the point, while Fisher ran the wing and flashed outside the near perimeter. He briefly drew a double team from Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha, causing Fisher to kick the ball to Bryant at the top of the key. Money. On the next possession, Bryant drove past Durant and drew contact in the lane, converting on one of two free throws. After missing his second foul shot, Lakers forward Ron Artest grabbed the loose ball and gave it to Bryant. He drove the lane, squared up in the paint and then converted on a fadeaway jumper.
This game didn't just feature Bryant putting on a show. That became necessary, especially when he sat out for the final 2:46 of the third quarter after drawing his fourth foul. And Bryant didn't return until the 6:20 mark in the fourth quarter. But the Lakers' reserves maintained a 86-82 lead while he was gone, something the unit had also did in Game 1 when Bryant got in foul trouble.
With nine seconds remaining on the shot clock, Odom drove the lane before quickly meeting a double team, and then kicked the ball out to Lakers guard Shannon Brown. Brown, who had 11 points off the bench, nailed a three-pointer to give the Lakers a 76-73 lead with 11:36 remaining. Two minutes later, Lakers forward Luke Walton made two clutch baskets to keep the Lakers' lead intact. Lakers guard Jordan Farmar fired a pass to Walton on the far end, Walton posted up on Oklahoma City forward Jeff Green and made a turnaround jumper, increasing the Lakers' lead to 81-75. A minute later, Odom directed the offense from the left block and found Walton flash toward the near corner. After receiving the pass, Walton nailed the trey and widened the cushion to 84-77 with 8:36 remaining.
The contributions didn't just come on offense. Artest lived up to his defensive billing once again, limiting Durant to 26 points on five of 23 shooting. That included Durant going zero of six in the first quarter partly because of Artest's defensive imprint. The sequence went like this: Durant posted up on the near block and settled for a fadeaway jumper, but Artest's refusal to give him space contributed to Durant's shot hitting off the rim. Durant drove past Artest and pulled up for a jumper, but Artest swiped the ball from behind. The ball went out of bounds, but Durant's following attempt yielded similar results. Durant curled off a down screen but Artest fought through it and Durant's jumper rimmed out. Durant flashed to the left block and pulled up for a jumper, but Artest contested the shot from behind.
Despite the numerous examples of the team's various contributions, the Lakers don't exactly enter the semifinals with the best cards. Lakers center Andrew Bynum reportedly hyperextended his right knee. Odom wore a brace on his right knee. And Artest has a bruised right shoulder.
But with the Lakers successfully coming off a complete Game 5 and an adversarial Game 6, it wouldn't be surprising if those two performances serve as a momentum boost in the Western Conference semifinal.
Photo: Lakers power forward Pau Gasol gets set to put back a miss by Kobe Bryant for the winning basket with less than a second to play Friday night in Oklahoma City. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers center Andrew Bynum (17) gives a leaping bump to power forward Pau Gasol as they celebrate taking a 95-94 lead after Gasol's put back of a Kobe Bryant miss with less than a second to play Friday night in Oklahoma City. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers forward Ron Artest strips the ball from the grasp of Thunder center Nick Collison in Game 6 on Friday night. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times