Thunder forward Kevin Durant loses control of the ball as he drives between… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
The Lakers got the ending right this time.
Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace made sure of it Friday night at Staples Center, helping the Lakers hold on for a breathless 99-96 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals.
Two days after he had flubbed the final minutes of Game 2, missing two shots and being in the midst of a pair of turnovers, Bryant was nearly flawless late in a game the Lakers had to win.
He scored eight of his 36 points in the final 92 seconds, including two free throws that put the Lakers ahead to stay with 33 seconds left.
"We were just patient and we were aggressive," said Bryant, whose team still trails in the best-of-seven series, two games to one. "We wanted to do the same thing they did to us in Oklahoma."
World Peace added a strip of Kevin Durant under the basket and a pair of free throws with 12 seconds remaining that ensured the Lakers, who made an astounding 41 of 42 free throws, would not be swept in the second round for a second consecutive season.
The Thunder had a chance to tie in the final seconds, but Durant misfired on a three-pointer and Lakers center Andrew Bynum capped the wild finish by blocking Serge Ibaka's putback attempt, triggering roars from thousands of fans wearing gold "Be The Difference" T-shirts.
The Lakers won't have long to savor their first triumph in a conference semifinal game in more than two years. Game 4 is Saturday night at Staples Center, marking the Lakers' first back-to-back situation in the playoffs since 1999.
"We're 21 hours away from Game 4," P.A. announcer Lawrence Tanter announced after the game.
Bryant made only nine of 25 shots overall but all 18 free throws, including eight in the fourth quarter.
Steve Blake also had a bounce-back game for the Lakers after missing a potential go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds of Game 2. The point guard had 12 points and eight rebounds, scoring five points midway through the fourth quarter.
Durant finished with 31 points and James Harden had 21 for the Thunder, which lost for the first time in the playoffs after six consecutive victories, including a first-round sweep of defending champion Dallas.
Bynum struggled to make shots but not free throws, finishing with 15 points mostly on the strength of making 11 of 12 free throws. He made only two of 13 shots.
The Lakers converted their first 28 free throw attempts. The Thunder wasn't bad either, making 26 of 28 from the line.
The momentum wildly vacillated in the fourth quarter, with the Thunder taking a 92-87 lead after Russell Westbrook stole the ball from Bryant and went in for a dunk with 2:54 to go.
But the Lakers scored the next six points on two free throws by Pau Gasol, a driving layup by Bryant and two Bryant free throws.
Durant's 17-foot jumper with 1:06 put the Thunder back on top before Bryant's free throws 33 seconds later gave the Lakers a 95-94 lead.
Serge Ibaka then missed a jumper, the Thunder fouled World Peace, and that was that.
"It was just one of those games where we couldn't close it out," Westbrook said.
A rivalry that had already taken a testy turn thanks to World Peace's elbow to the head of Harden late in the regular season heated up again in the second quarter.
The ugliness started when World Peace reached over a prone Westbrook in an attempt to extract the ball. The contact upset Westbrook, who flailed wildly at World Peace's legs and then absorbed a knee from his Lakers counterpart.
Both players were issued technical fouls.
The Lakers would get in the parting shots.