Kevin Durant drives past Metta World Peace during the second half of Game… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
New adventures in Lakers playoff losses …
They have been blown out. They have frittered away a seven-point lead in the final two minutes.
On Saturday night, in one of the cruelest defeats imaginable, the Lakers found themselves immersed in a nearly total fourth-quarter implosion.
A 13-point cushion was obliterated during the final eight minutes of a wobbly leggged 103-100 defeat against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Staples Center in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals.
There may not be many more chances for the Lakers to get creative. The Thunder could close out a series it leads, three games to one, in Game 5 on Monday night in Oklahoma City.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were the primary Lakers antagonists, with Westbrook's pull-up jumpers and driving layups rallying the Thunder and Durant's three-pointer with 13 seconds left giving his team a 101-98 lead.
Kobe Bryant, whose touch evaded him in the fourth quarter of the Lakers' second game in a 27-hour span, missed a three-pointer and Oklahoma City's James Harden grabbed the rebound.
Harden made two free throws with seven seconds left to seal the Lakers' fate.
Bryant's floating jumper at the buzzer gave him 38 points but provided zero solace, the Lakers left to walk off the court in stunned disbelief. Bryant made 12 of 28 shots but only two of 10 in the fourth quarter.
“The shots that I took were tough shots,” Bryant said. “I was forced to take tough shots and they didn’t fall for me tonight. Either I have to free myself up to get better looks in the fourth quarter, or other guys have to be more aggressive. It’s one or the other.”
Bryant singled out teammate Pau Gasol, who finished with 10 points on four-for-10 shooting, saying “Pau has to be more aggressive. He’s the guy that’s catching the ball and is looking to pass.”
Many of Bryant’s late misses came with Durant defending him.
“I’m tall and I have long arms,” Durant said. “I just tried to put a hand up and hopefully he missed it.”
The Lakers had taken a nine-point lead into the final 12 minutes courtesy of Bryant's 22-foot fadeaway jumper to end the third quarter. They extended their advantage to 13 points on a jump hook by Jordan Hill before the Thunder frantically rallied behind the brilliant play of Westbrook, who finished with 37 points on 15-for-26 shooting.
Oklahoma City pulled even on a turnaround fadeaway jumper by Durant with 1:54 left and then took the lead on a Kendrick Perkins putback with 1:16 remaining.
Bryant tied the score, 98-98, on a pair of free throws with 1:04 to play before the teams exchanged turnovers and Durant made the decisive three-pointer. Durant finished with 31 points, making 10 of 18 shots.
“Everybody kept fighting, kept believing in each other,” Durant said.
Lakers Coach Mike Brown was particularly galled that his team gave up 32 points in the fourth quarter, its pick-and-roll coverages falling apart.
“They had two guys going,” Brown said, “and whoever had the ball was going to shoot it. We didn’t do a good enough job of imposing our will defensively on whoever had the ball.”
The Lakers had some trouble with free throws one night after making a nearly inconceivable 41 of 42 shots, converting 21 of 29 attempts Saturday. Their legs might have had something to do with it.
Bryant made 14 of 17 free throws, not quite the perfection he exhibited Friday while making a playoff franchise record 18 in a row.
Lakers center Andrew Bynum also faded badly after a stellar first half, finishing with 18 points, nine rebounds and four assists. The Thunder contributed to his drop-off, continually fronting him with defenders late in the game.
Compounding the fatigue factor for both teams was a slippery court that forced players to stumble throughout the game, with Westbrook sustaining a mild left hip injury late in the second quarter. He had to be helped off the court and received treatment at halftime, but he was able to stay in the game.
“I kind of stopped and slipped, did the splits, kind of messed up my hip a little bit,” Westbrook said. “But it’s the playoffs. You can’t sit back and whine about what’s going on.”
The Lakers staged a brief walk-through on the court and reviewed replays of the previous night's game.
That was it.
The Lakers certainly came out energized in the early going, with Bynum making his first six shots before missing a mid-range jumper. The 7-footer had two dunks in that span, one off an alley-oop pass from Ramon Sessions.
Bynum's most shocking first-half stat was his four assists, already achieving a personal playoff high in only 20 minutes.
Bynum and Gasol had fans roaring early in the second quarter when they each blocked a shot during one Thunder possession before Steve Blake fed Bynum in transition for a dunk that gave the Lakers a 36-26 lead.
Occasional glimpses of fatigue finally set in before halftime.
Thunder guard Derek Fisher hoisted an airball and Bryant later uncharacteristically lost his dribble on a drive toward the basket, turning the ball over. Durant then was unable to finish on a Westbrook alley-oop pass.
But Bryant continued to attack, his driving layup and ensuing free throw on a three-point play giving the Lakers a 56-46 halftime cushion.
It wouldn't hold up, and now the Lakers find themselves on the brink of another extended off-season.
“I don’t have any tricks or anything magical to help us get over this loss,” Brown said. “We’re going to have to be mature enough to understand that it’s one game at a time and it’s the first team to four wins. Nobody has four wins yet.”