Kobe Bryant deviates from game plan in Lakers' 101-96 Game 3 loss to the Thunder
The roaring crowd stood on their feet Thursday at Ford Center, and all eyes locked in on Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant squaring off at the top of the key. The Thunder had just been nearly six minutes removed from taking the lead for the first time all night, but the following sequence in the fourth quarter provided even more of a trickling affect.
Bryant drove left, dribbled behind his back and slashed right toward the free-throw line. Durant slid back, Bryant dribbled the ball between his legs and drove left since Durant gave him space. After cutting past the left elbow, Bryant pulled up for a jumper outside of the paint, but Durant swatted the ball away, raising the crowd's decibel level to deafening proportions. The play didn't just mark intrigue between Bryant versus Durant, a storyline that raised interest ever since a recent Rolling Stone article suggested Durant will soon surpass Bryant as a basketball player. It marked Durant's valiant defensive effort on Bryant where he only went two of 10 from the field in the fourth quarter. It resulted in Durant nailing a nine-foot jumper in transition on the following play, giving OKC a six-point lead with 5:11 remaining in the game. And the play prompted Bryant to start facilitating the offense instead of taking over the offense perhaps a little too late.
The Lakers' 101-96 loss Thursday in Game 3 to the Thunder isn't entirely surprising. Though I have predicted the Lakers will take this series in five games - the Lakers currently lead 2-1 -- I thought each game would be competitive since the Lakers decided two of their three-regular season victories against Oklahoma City in the final minute, the Thunder is a young-and-upcoming team and the Lakers entered the postseason playing rather inconsistently. If there ever is a game a losing team wins in a series, it typically happens in Game 3 since the home crowd is on its side and falling into a 2-0 deficit creates more urgency. So it's not entirely disappointing that the Lakers allowed the Thunder to capture the franchise's first postseason victory since relocating in 2008 from Seattle. But it's something that could've been avoided, considering the Lakers started the game with a 10-0 lead, a significant achievement that can help deflate an excited Oklahoma City crowd and set the tone for the rest of the game.
But it didn't. And when you fast forward to the fourth quarter, most of it featured Bryant trying to play hero when it wasn't appropriate. Instead, Bryant, whose 24 points on 10 of 29 shooting surpassed Jerry West for the Lakers' all-time playoff scoring record with 4,465 points, should have played to the Lakers' strengths in feeding the ball inside. Granted, Bryant's approach in Game 2 was pretty much the same, scoring 15 fourth-quarter points on five of eight shooting and largely ignoring the bigs. But those were different circumstances.
In Game 2, Bryant's shot started falling in the fourth quarter and he continued to follow suit, considering the team's inside game lacked effectivness with OKC's double teams denying penetration in the post. Bryant also went 13 of 15 from the charity stripe because he perfected drawing contact. In Game 3, the Lakers' inside game actually worked at first with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum combining for 30 points but on only 21 combined shots. Instead, Bryant opted for shots that wouldn't fall and made zero trips to the free-throw line mostly because he settled for outside jumpers. Bryant's mantra - "You just make the plays" and "I just take what the defense gives me" -- are rightful philosophies, but it's clearly something he didn't follow in Game 3.
And each missed shot resulted in Oklahoma City cashing in on transition. Thunder guard Russell Westbrook gave OKC an 80-77 lead with 9:26 remaining, after Bryant missed a 14-footer. Westbrook made a three-pointer after Bryant's missed attempt, increasing OKC's lead to 86-82 with 5:48 remaining. As mentioned before, Durant's dunk following his block on Bryant gave Oklahoma City an 88-82 edge with 5:11 remaining. And Durant's jumper gave OKC an 90-82 advantage with 4:26 remaining after Bryant misfired on a three-pointer.
To Bryant's credit, he eventually changed to a facilitating role after he knew his shot wasn't falling. He had three fourth-quarter assists and the improved ball movement resulted in Derek Fisher nailing a three-pointer, Ron Artest sinking two jumpers and Lamar Odom drilling a three-pointer. Bryant also made a key play in the final minute, grabbing a defensive rebound, running down the court and converting on a layup to cut Oklahoma City's lead to 98-96 with 13 seconds late. But it was too late.
The Thunder secured the win, after sinking three consecutive free throws, and made 27 of 34 free throws. Meanwhile, the Lakers went 10 of 12 from the stripe, a line that would've increased had the Lakers, including Bryant, looked more inside .
In some fairness to Bryant, other elements contributed to the loss. The Thunder outrebounded the Lakers 53-39, scored 23 fast-break points and featured four players in double figures (Durant's 29, Westbrook's 27, James Harden's 18 and Jeff Green's 10). Odom continued to be a non factor (eight points in three of seven shooting with a plus-minus rating of (-10). He played tentatively and unfocused, a habit he perfectly illustrated when he settled for two three-pointers before the end of the first and third quarters instead of driving to the basket as well as when Westbrook posterized him. And most of the Lakers reserves, which finished with 14 points on five of 16 shooting, could barely hold their own after Bryant sat for the final 3:58 of the third quarter.
But lots of this loss should be pinned on Bryant's fourth-quarter play, which featured him bailing on the offense instead of bailing out the offense. It's a shame, considering Fisher and Artest vastly improved their shooting numbers. Fisher had 17 points on five of eight shooting after finishing the first two games on six of 22 shooting. Artest finished with 11 points on a five of 10 clip after averaging in the first two games only six points on 28% shooting. Those numbers were possible because the Lakers went inside first, with the inside-outside game better serving a shooter's rhythm. But that approach went away, partly with Bryant trying to take over the fourth quarter.
I don't doubt Bryant's ability to dominate future games just like I don't doubt Durant will bounce back from an eight of 24 shooting night. But in Game 3, those players approached the game much differently. Durant compensated his poor shooting by grabbing 19 rebounds. Bryant compensated his poor shooting by...well, continuing to shoot. He kept forcing something that wasn't there until the final minutes of the game when the outcome had mostly been decided.
Even though Bryant has largely held this reputation of playing selfishly for most of his career, that mindset actually doesn't accurately reflect how he's mostly played this season, with exception to when he shot too much in January. With injuries limiting him and defenses focusing on him, Bryant took a very pragmatic approach the rest of the season and found other ways to leave a dominating imprint on the game. There's also been times where he's had to bail out the Lakers' ineffective offense, what with his six-game winners and his fourth-quarter dominance in Game 2 against Oklahoma City. But in Game 3, Bryant tried applying that same mentality on a night the offense mostly worked. And though he eventually shifted roles, it was already too late.
Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant walks off the court after a 101-96 loss to the Thunder on Thursday night in Oklahoma City. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Thunder forward Kevin Durant blocks a shot by Lakers guard Kobe Bryant in the fourth quarter Thursday night. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant reacts after getting called for a foul while defending Thunder forward Kevin Durant in Game 3 on Thursday night. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times