Posted May 17 2012 10:14AM
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The natural inclination after watching the Los Angeles Lakers crumble in crunch time and lose a seven-point lead in the final two minutes on the road in a playoff setting is to focus on what went wrong. It is to look at what they did not do to hold on to what would have been a huge, playoffs-altering win.
There are the turnovers, the missed shots, the diagramed inbounds play gone awry. There's Steve Blake (and not Kobe Bryant) taking what amounted to be the Lakers' last-gasp shot and the 120 seconds of uncontrolled chaos on both ends of the floor during that span.
You could spend all of your time examining those two Laker minutes. But to do so would miss a more important point. And that is all of the things the Oklahoma City Thunder did right to come back and steal Game 2, 77-75, on Kevin Durant's baseline layup with 18.6 seconds to play.
For every play the Lakers didn't make in those frantic, final minutes, the Thunder made two. While the Lakers appeared to be rattled with the game on the line, unsure of who should do what, the Thunder exuded a calm rarely seen from a group so young, at least in NBA playoff years (this is this Thunder group's fifth playoff series together).
The cold-blooded assassin routine is supposed to be Bryant's. Yet it was the three-time scoring champ, Durant, who sank his second game-winning shot in the past six games. (He beat the Mavericks with a jumper over Shawn Marion's outstretched hand in Game 1 of their first-round series.)
Instead of Game 3 Friday night in Los Angeles being a referendum on the Thunder's ability to bounce back, it's become a bit of an examination of the fabric of this Lakers team and whether or not they can close the deal the way they (mostly) have throughout Bryant's tenure.
There shouldn't be any more doubts about the Thunder. They are 6-0 in the postseason, a mark only the San Antonio Spurs can match.
OKC has shown it can win however it wants to. It can win a blowout, the way it did L.A. in a 29-point Game 1 rout. Or it can close out in scintillating fashion, as it did in Game 2.
"In this league, it's all about fighting to the end," Durant said. "Both teams grinding it out. Coach called a timeout, told us we could do it. We came out and made plays. We just kept fighting. This team is tough, on defense and offense. Our DNA is always keep pressing, keeping our composure."
The Thunder's DNA comes up often after wins, be they blowouts or nail biters. This is the time of year they were built for. Whether it comes from Durant's fearlessness at crunch time or Russell Westbrook and James Harden's willingness to gamble -- and win -- on defense, as they did down the stretch in Game 2.
Don't forget Serge Ibaka's defense. He finished with seven blocks and was splendid in limited duty due to foul trouble. Same goes for Kendrick Perkins, who did yeoman's work, with a sore hip, against Andrew Bynum. Thabo Sefolosha kept Bryant from getting free on one of the Lakers' last possessions, forcing Blake to launch a 3-pointer because inbounder Metta World Peace couldn't get the ball to Bryant.
(We'll have to respectfully disagree with Lakers coach Mike Brown and Bryant, who insist that Bryant was open. He was not. World Peace made the right play in getting the ball to Blake.)
Why wouldn't the Thunder feel comfortable in late-game situations, no matter the lead or deficit, with all of those forces working in concert?
"We all live for these moments," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "Playing close games. Our guys love the moments. There were so many critical moments."
Too many to count for the Lakers, who face the daunting task of holding off a Thunder team whose confidence grows with each outing.
The Lakers head home assuming that if they duplicate their defensive effort from Game 2, they have the Thunder figured out. Their defensive adjustments forced turnovers, which have been the Thunder's flaw all season. The Lakers held Westbrook down, corralled Harden, forced the high-scoring Thunder into a sub-80-point game and ignored Durant for long, crucial stretches of the game.
They did everything they wanted ... until those final two minutes.
The Lakers didn't lose Game 2, so much as they gave it away. "We're better than Santa Claus giving out gifts," Bynum said. "We like giving out gifts. We give out games, contracts and rings."
The Thunder had the third-best road record in the league this season. And they had no problems closing out the Mavericks on the road in the first round, ending the champs' reign in a hostile environment.
Lakers forward Pau Gasol said it before the game: the Thunder are quicker, younger and more athletic than the Lakers. L.A.'s edge in this series was supposed to be its experience and that it had the best closer in the game.
None of that was enough to save the Lakers from the Thunder's late rush in Game 2. And it might not be enough to save them in this series. As of now, no one closes better than the young Thunder.
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