The Thunder’s come-from-behind win at Staples Center last night revealed one important truth about this Oklahoma City-Los Angeles series: no lead is safe in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, that truth has stung them twice and left them on the wrong side of a 3-1 series advantage after the Thunder’s 103-100 win in Game 4. Russell Westbrook took over in the fourth quarter rally and led the Thunder with 37 points and five assists, but it was Kevin Durant who put the final nail in the coffin with a clutch 3-pointer to put OKC up 101-98 with 13 seconds to go.
Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 38 points, eight rebounds and five assists, but his struggles in the fourth quarter opened the door for the Thunder’s comeback that will now send the series back to Oklahoma City for an elimination game. Andrew Bynum had 18 points and nine rebounds and everyone in LA’s starting five scored in double digits. But the Lake Show made critical mistakes down the stretch and couldn’t stop the Durant-Westbrook tandem down the stretch and gave up a nine point lead with less that six minutes to play after leading by as many as 12 in the third quarter. In fact, the Lakers were ahead for the majority of the game, racking up points in the paint and physically abusing the Thunder on both ends of the floor. But OKC hung around and as is the case with any great team, if you let them hang around, you will come to regret it in the end. After the 42 free throws debacle in Game 3, the refs (relatively) shortened up on the whistles, which meant the Lakers greatly benefitted from their advantage in being able physically push the Thunder around in the paint and on the defensive end for the majority of the game. LA was the aggressor for almost the entire game, abusing OKC’s bigs, getting to the foul line and letting the Thunder settle for contested jumpers because Oklahoma City couldn’t get anything going to the basket against the Lakers’ physical defense. Serge Ibaka finished with 14 but the Thunder didn’t really get much out of anyone else. James Harden had an off night, shooting 2-for-11 from the field to finish with just 12 points, but Westbrook made up for it as he caught fire with 10 points in the fourth quarter. Durant finished with 31 points and 13 rebounds and the Thunder ended the game on a 22-8 run, capped off by the Durant 3-pointer and two Harden free throws that sealed the Lakers’ fate.
The series now heads back to Oklahoma City for Game 5. This is a pretty demoralizing loss for the Lakers, who led for the majority of the night and did everything they needed to to win except finish. The Thunder outscored LA 32-20 in the game’s final period and after three quarters of being dominated in the post, OKC turned the game on its head by becoming the aggressor. The Lakers reverted to the Thunder’s patented style of basketball by shooting a large number of long distance jump shots as OKC got to the basket and started hitting mid rand jumpers. Kobe Bryant, who choked down the stretch in Game 2, once again had problems living up to his distant accolades as a clutch performer by going 2-for-10 in the fourth quarter, jacking up a large number of perimeter shots that didn’t find their mark. So even though Ron Artest knocked down a few critical jump shots with Kobe on the bench to keep the Lakers’ lead alive, as soon as Kobe returned to the floor, the ball never made it back inside the paint to Bynum and Kobe launched it every time he got it. Pau Gasol, who has been criticized throughout the playoffs for playing soft and disappearing on the offensive end, once again disappointed Laker fans not only because of his 10-point, 5-rebound night, but also because of his critical turnover that led to Kevin Durant’s 3-pointer to seal the game.
All the momentum is now with the Oklahoma City Thunder. They’ve got home court advantage, they were able to overcome a (relatively) balanced scoring effort from the Lakers without Harden playing well and they once again showed their resilience, grit and determination in the fourth quarter, even facing a deficit against a tough team on the road. Kobe is doing all that he can do and since Bynum has mentally checked out, as long as he’s putting up double doubles Los Angeles will be satisfied. But if the Lakers don’t get a lot more out of Gasol, Kevin Durant and the Thunder should have the killer instinct to put this series away on their own terms at home in Game 5.