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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Kobe guides Lakers to gritty victory


LOS ANGELES — After two straight exhausting playoff games that went down to the last gasp, Kobe Bryant knows the Los Angeles Lakers can't hope to keep up with the younger, faster Oklahoma City Thunder.

News photo
Nothing easy: Thunder forward Kevin Durant attempts a shot as Lakers center Andrew Bynum defends on Friday at Staples Center in Los Angeles. The Lakers won Game 3 of their playoff series 99-96. AP

They're better off slowing down the game — or even better yet, standing still at the free throw line.

That's what the Lakers did to near perfection in Game 3 on Friday night, and that's why they're still standing in a series with an opponent who can run circles around them.

Bryant made 18 free throws without a miss, scored 14 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter, and the Lakers rallied late for a 99-96 victory, cutting the Thunder's second-round series lead to 2-1.

Metta World Peace swiped the ball from Kevin Durant and hit two free throws with 12.9 seconds left for the third-seeded Lakers, who shook off the memory of their late collapse in Game 2 with a steady comeback from a late five-point deficit. Bryant's effort at the line set a franchise playoff record, and the Lakers needed every free throw.

"If it's an up-and-down game, we don't have a shot," said Bryant, who surpassed Gail Goodrich's 1972 team record of 17 free throws without a miss. "We've got to just slow down the game. Play our pace, play our tempo, and we'll give ourselves a great opportunity."

When Durant missed a potential tying 3-pointer before Andrew Bynum blocked Serge Ibaka's shot at the buzzer, the Lakers' frenzied crowd celebrated only their second victory in the last six playoff games.

Game 4 in the back-to-back set is Saturday night, which won't help the Lakers' weary legs in their 11th playoff game in 21 days.

Yet while the Thunder have shown more skill and athleticism than the Lakers can match, Los Angeles has largely controlled the tempo for two straight games.

Who knows what's possible in the shadow of the Lakers' 16 championship banners?

"We continued to work, even when they got the lead a couple of times in the fourth quarter," said Pau Gasol, who had 12 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. "It's in us. We want to win this series, we want to beat this team, and we will do whatever it takes. Obviously, we know how hard it is going to be, but we are ready for it."

Durant scored 31 points before missing his last shot for Oklahoma City, which seemed poised to move to the brink of its second straight trip to the Western Conference finals with a five-point lead inside the final 3 minutes. Instead, the Thunder lost for the first time in the postseason, getting outscored 12-4 down the stretch.

After blowing a seven-point lead in the final two minutes of Game 2, Los Angeles finished Game 3 on a 6-2 run in the final 33 seconds, all on free throws. The Lakers went 41 for 42 from the line, including 26 for 27 in the second half.

"You have to knock those freebies down," Lakers coach Mike Brown said. "You're not going to get any better look in a game than a free throw. That's how good (the Thunder) are."

The Lakers said the 41-of-42 performance at the line was the second-best in NBA playoff history for teams with more than 30 attempts. Only Dallas' 49-for-50 effort against San Antonio on May 19, 2003, was better.

Russell Westbrook and James Harden scored 21 points apiece for the Thunder, who couldn't match the Lakers' late-game execution after soundly out-executing the Lakers in Game 2.

"We put them on the line," Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. "We can't do that. Down the stretch, you have to defend them without fouling and rebound the basketball. Unfortunately, we came up short."

The game was the first of four second-round NBA playoff games in just over 48 hours at Staples Center, also the site of the NHL's Western Conference finals between and Kings and Phoenix on Thursday and Sunday. The top-seeded San Antonio Spurs face the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday in an afternoon game before the Thunder and Lakers play Game 4.

Thanks to the NBA's shortened schedule, the Lakers are playing their first back-to-back playoff games since May 22-23, 1999, in the second round against San Antonio during another season shortened by labor strife.

76ers 92, Celtics 83

In Philadelphia, Andre Iguodala squared up for a 3-pointer from the wing like he had hundreds of times in his career.

This shot was different from all the others.

Iguodala continued a postseason where his final numbers don't pop on the box score, but the buckets are as pivotal as they get. He snapped a tie game with five straight points in the final 90 seconds to help the 76ers storm back from 18 points down in the third quarter to stun Boston Celtics in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The young Sixers were a team reborn in the second half and played like a squad that refused to roll over for the championship-tested Celtics.

"I don't even know where to start," Philadelphia coach Doug Collins said. "Our guys are pretty amazing. They really are."

Iguodala certainly has been.

One of the more maligned athletes in recent Philadelphia history, he's changing his reputation one fourth-quarter point at a time.

Iguodala put the Sixers ahead 85-83 with a step-back jumper over a flailing Ray Allen with 1:22 left. Then he took the feed from a driving Williams and buried a 3-pointer for a five-point lead.

Game over.

"That's not the first time he found me in that same exact spot," Iguodala said. "Just not as big a platform as it was tonight. But it worked out for us."

With the huge comeback, the Sixers tied the series at 2-2 and guaranteed a return home for one more game.

Game 5 is Monday in Boston.

They can thank Iguodala, Lou Williams, Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen for an unforgettable second half that left the Celtics purely dazed following an outcome that hardly seemed possible when Boston led 14-0 to start the game.

Iguodala and Turner scored 16 points. Williams scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half.

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