Poor fourth quarter buries Lakers
Durant shut down Bryant at the end of Game 3 after a crafty defensive switch
OKLAHOMA CITY -- For five days, two games and three quarters it looked as though the Los Angeles Lakers had found the elusive switch, parading through the Oklahoma City Thunder with few obstacles and coming 12 minutes of game clock away from a vice-like grip on their first-round series with a 3-0 lead.
Then the fourth quarter happened Thursday.
After the Thunder came away with a 101-96 win to draw the series to 2-1, whatever cohesiveness Los Angeles had suddenly regained after stumbling through the final two weeks of the regular season seems to have disappeared just as quickly as it surfaced.
As reporters asked the team to sift through the rubble after the Lakers allowed the Thunder to shoot 10-for-17 in the fourth quarter (58.8 percent) after holding them to 36.5 percent through the first three quarters and 39.7 percent over the first two games in L.A., they couldn't even agree whether they missed a golden opportunity.
"I feel that way," Pau Gasol, who finished with 17 points, 15 rebounds and six assists but had just two shot attempts in the fourth. "Obviously give them credit because they did their job, but I think we let the game slip away from our hands when we had it under control."
Just like Cleveland's big man and wing man seemed at odds after the No. 1 Cavs lost to the No. 8 Bulls over in the East ("Shaq needs to pick up his play," LeBron James said), L.A.'s dynamic duo weren't on the same page after Game 3 -- maybe not even on the same chapter or the same book, for that matter.
"I think they won it," said Kobe Bryant, who finished with 24 points and eight assists, but missed eight of his last nine shots, going 2-for-10 in the fourth and 10-for-29 in the game. "They had a moment there during a stretch of the ball game where they made big plays and made free throws down the stretch. [Russell] Westbrook made a big 3-point play and knocked down a big 3-point shot. These are things that they did."
Gasol and Bryant weren't the only Lakers players whose outlook of the game differed dramatically.
"We didn't play good defense," Lamar Odom said of the Thunder's fourth-quarter turnaround. "If you don't play good defense, opportunities they're getting driving to the lane [and] laying the ball up kind of puts pressure on your offense, especially in a hostile environment."
Gasol saw it the other way around. It was the Lakers' offense that was hurting their defense.
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"Your offense is related to your defense, and when you take long shots, long rebounds lead to runouts, turnovers lead to runouts; that's what they rely on," Gasol said. "Obviously that's what they're hoping for."
The Thunder scored 23 fast-break points in Game 3 after scoring 25 points in transition in Games 1 and 2 combined.
"That's tough to survive," Bryant said.
What's also tough to survive is when Bryant goes completely cold like he did in the fourth with Kevin Durant switched on him, the 21-year-old using his 7-5 wingspan and three inches of height on Bryant to harass him into myriad mistakes.
"It was a matchup that caught me by surprise," Bryant said.
Bryant may have won Game 2 with a masterful 15-point fourth quarter, but he might have lost Game 3 by playing like he was "looking to get hot," which was how Phil Jackson described Bryant's shot-happy first half in Game 2 during Thursday morning's shootaround.
Three of the eight shots Bryant missed in the fourth were 3-pointers. The Lakers went 10-for-31 from deep as a team, tying a team playoff high for most attempts that they've reached twice before. All three times the Lakers took 31 triples, they lost.
"Too many," Gasol said. "Too many. We tend to settle sometimes a little too much. We got to create penetration. We got to take advantage of our size. We have to figure out how to do so because obviously we shot the ball a little better tonight than we did the last couple days, but it was too many threes for our ball club."
Jackson echoed Gasol: "We took too many 3s. Those shots will start going awry." But again, Odom's assessment of the outside shooting was off-key compared to Jackson and Gasol's harmony on the subject.
"I don't think the outside shots were forced," Odom said. "They were there, they were good shots, good looks, they just didn't go."
Bynum, who finished with seven rebounds in 32 minutes, said he wasn't able to grab more because long shots lead to long rebounds when clanked off the rim.
"[Outside] shots are definitely cool, [if you,] you know, pump-fake, dribble in, shoot and be softer," Bynum said.
Every outside shot launched was one fewer touch the Lakers' big men could get. Gasol and Andrew Bynum combined to shoot 13-for-21 (61.9 percent), yet they got only 21 shots to Bryant's 29.
Gasol was asked what the difference in the fourth quarter, and he repeated the question out loud to himself, "What was the difference?" -- a classic stall tactic, as if he were thinking hard for another difference besides from the obvious one of Bryant's suddenly going cold.
Gasol wouldn't demand the ball, but Bynum would do it for him.
"Pau should definitely get more touches," Bynum said, speaking out for his frontcourt mate. "Every time he touches the ball, something good happens."
One thing Bryant and Jackson were in agreement on was that on top of everything else, the Lakers lost the game at the free-throw line. Not from their misses, but from their lack of attempts. Durant had as many makes (12-for-13) as the whole Lakers team had takes (10-for-12).
"The factor was the free throws, 34 [attempts] to 12 [attempts]," Jackson said. "That has to go with their aggressiveness; it's not about the referees or anything else."
When Bryant was asked about his 0-for-0 day at the free-throw line he said, "I'm not quite sure how to answer that. Um, yeah. Both teams played hard."
Well, Bryant and Jackson were sort of on the same page on that one, at least. Jackson could have been extending an olive branch toward the refs after David Stern lambasted him for his comments about officiating before the game.
All of the things the Lakers did right -- taking the crowd out of it early with a 10-0 run, Artest (5-for-10) and Derek Fisher (5-for-8) finding their shots, Bynum bouncing back from a lackluster Game 2 -- are forgotten because they couldn't stop Westbrook and Durant in the fourth quarter.
The Lakers lost Game 3 to Utah in the first round last year and came back to win the series in five games. There was nothing in Thursday's game that suggests L.A. can't make the proper adjustments for Saturday's Game 4.
And because of that, the Lakers' leaders -- Bryant and Gasol -- remain on the same page when it comes to one important thing: confidence.
"We have to come up with another way of doing it, which I'm sure we will," Bryant said.
Added Gasol: "I'm not going to lose my confidence because we lose a game."
And that right there is why Lakers fans should feel confident this team can flip that switch right back on.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.