Durant’s surge lifts Thunder in home playoff debut
OKLAHOMA CITY – Scuffling through a rough shooting night, Kevin Durant wanted to do anything he could to keep the Oklahoma City Thunder from falling hopelessly behind the Los Angeles Lakers.
So, why not take on the task of defending Kobe Bryant?
Durant had 29 points and 19 rebounds, and snapped out of a shooting funk while guarding Bryant to lead the decisive run, lifting the Thunder to a 101-96 victory in Game 3 on Thursday night in the first playoff game in Oklahoma City.
“Scoring’s a big part of my game. It kind of overshadows the other parts of my game,” said Durant, who at 21 became the youngest player to lead the NBA in scoring. “But if I continue to play hard on both ends, it’s going to come around for me. I was able to get free and make a couple shots, and that’s what got us going.”
Durant and Russell Westbrook scored 22 of the final 23 for the Thunder, including every point during a 10-2 surge that put Oklahoma City ahead to stay.
The top-seeded Lakers got back within 98-96 on Bryant’s driving layup with 13.5 seconds left, but the Thunder closed it out from the foul line to pull within 2-1 in the seven-game series.
Game 4 is Saturday night in Oklahoma City.
Durant celebrated by thumping his chest and popping his jersey to show off the “Thunder” printed on the front while Westbrook, who scored 27 points, flapped his arms to egg on the screaming crowd.
“It feels good. Playing against the reigning champs makes it even better. But we have a long ways to go,” said Durant, who missed his first seven shots and 15 of his first 19. “It does feel good to get our first win. It feels even better to bring the first win in the playoffs here to Oklahoma City. That’s what I’m most excited about.”
Bryant scored 24 points to surpass Jerry West’s franchise record for playoff scoring, and Pau Gasol had 17 points and 15 rebounds for Los Angeles.
But when it came down to crunch time, Bryant couldn’t deliver as he did in scoring 15 fourth-quarter points to seal the Lakers’ 95-92 victory in Game 2. He went 2 for 10 in the final 12 minutes, with Durant stopping between free throws at one point to motion to the bench that he wanted to guard the former MVP.
“It was a matchup that caught me by surprise,” said Bryant, who’s nearly half a foot shorter than Durant. “I think he did a great job.”
Undaunted by a raucous sellout crowd, the Lakers scored the first 10 points of the game and were in control until the Thunder roared back with an electrifying run of eight straight points late in the third quarter.
The fans reached a deafening pitch as the Thunder completed their charge back from an 11-point deficit set off by Westbrook’s right-handed tomahawk dunk. James Harden and Durant followed with back-to-back 3-pointers to tie it at 74, and Oklahoma City finally took its first lead of the game on its opening possession of the fourth quarter.
“That was the loudest I’ve ever heard a crowd get,” said Harden, a rookie reserve who scored 18 points after going scoreless in Games 1 and 2. “That Russell dunk was just amazing and the back-to-back 3s, it just rattled the place.”
Nick Collison, the only player left from the franchise’s last playoff appearance five years ago in Seattle, said, “It was so loud, it was almost quiet. It’s a weird feeling.”
Andrew Bynum pulled Los Angeles even for the final time by powering through Collison’s hard foul for a right-handed dunk, then hitting the ensuing free throw to tie it at 80.
Durant answered at the other end with a jumper from the right side with 8:41 left to give Oklahoma City the lead for good, then converted Bryant’s turnover into a two-handed jam on a fast break.
His 19-foot jumper from the right wing put Oklahoma City up 90-82 with 4:28 remaining, and that lead was just big enough for the Thunder to hang on down the stretch.
“We just fell asleep. We probably thought we had it in the bag,” said Ron Artest, charged with defending Durant most of the game. “In this game, especially, you’ve got to respect the possessions. … You really can’t take it for granted.”
Fans wearing free blue “Rise Together” T-shirts were standing even 15 minutes before the game to chant “Beat L.A.!” and rose to their feet again when the Thunder brought out a new pregame video that showed key moments from Oklahoma City’s time in the NBA.
It was billed as the biggest sports day in the city’s history, with three Oklahoma players taken among the top four picks in the NFL draft on the same night as the first home playoff game for the Thunder or the New Orleans Hornets – who were displaced to the Ford Center for two seasons following Hurricane Katrina.
And it came on the 121st anniversary of the date the state, which was formerly American Indian territory, was first settled in a land run.
All that didn’t seem to bother the defending NBA champions.
They kept the fans standing – and waiting for the Thunder’s first basket – until coach Scott Brooks burned a timeout 2:34 into the game with his team already down 10-0. Los Angeles made its first seven shots, taking advantage of three early Thunder turnovers and the 7-foot Bynum’s size advantage inside with a series lobs.
“I was actually disappointed in the crowd because all year long I thought they were the best crowd. They just gave us so much energy and were so loud throughout the year,” Brooks said. “But now, I realize they were sandbagging.”
NOTES: Durant tied for second in voting for the NBA’s most improved player, behind Houston’s Aaron Brooks, after finishing third in the voting last season. “I think I made a bigger leap last year, being more comfortable. As far as me going out on the floor and producing and being more consistent, I did that last year. This year, I just gained more and more confidence, got a little bigger and a little stronger and was able to help my team out.” … Harden, the Thunder’s top-scoring reserve with 9.9 points per game, hit his first three shots and scored a team-high 15 points in the first half after going 0-for-5 shooting in the first two games of the series. … A reporter mentioned to Brooks, who was presented his coach of the year award before the game, that he used to give free basketball clinics. “I guess now I can charge, huh?” he quipped.
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