Kobe Bryant has given up on some bad habits, but retains one curious one (Getty Images)
Los Angeles Lakers 99, Oklahoma City Thunder 96 (Thunder lead series 2-1)
Game 1 was the blowout, the startling realization that the Oklahoma City Thunder remained a championship-level force to be reckoned with, even after a week-long layoff. Game 2 was the ugly nail-biter, the one that Los Angeles let get away. Game 3? It wasn't perfect. But it was fantastic, end-to-end playoff basketball.
There were quibbles, to be sure. Thunder coach Scott Brooks probably shouldn't have left Derek Fisher try to guard Kobe Bryant after Kobe's entrance in the fourth quarter; Kevin Durant will get criticism for the pass he made (to Serge Ibaka, in the game's third-to-last possession); Ibaka will get criticism for the pass he didn't make (to Durant or Russell Westbrook with the Thunder down three with three seconds left); and Kobe Bryant's ability to goad referee Marc Davis into putting him at the line on a phantom foul late in the fourth quarter. There were mistakes.
Kobe, though, earned just about every other trip to the line. He hit double-figure free-throw attempts by the end of the third quarter, and did not fall victim to the low-percentage looks down the stretch like he did late in Game 2 (save for one instance, that led directly to OKC going up five in the middle of the fourth as Kobe admired his follow through). One drive and score over both Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka in the fourth probably saved Los Angeles' season. Whine all you want over the Lakers shooting 42 free throws and Kobe hitting 18 of 18, but by my count he earned all but four of those 18 (both on phantom fouls versus James Harden), and the Lakers earned this win.
Andrew Bynum was fantastic defensively, hedging and moving bodies on the interior, making up for a tough night from the floor (2 for 13) by playing so well on the other end and hitting 11 free throws of his own. Pau Gasol was once again given afterthought status, but still added a team-high (tied with Kobe) six assists, with Los Angeles dishing an assist on 14 of the its 16 first-half baskets.
The Thunder have some rotation issues to work through. Derek Fisher entered the game early (just six minutes in) because Brooks wasn't happy with Russell Westbrook's energy level to start the game, and that was probably a good move. But eventually playing James Harden only 29 minutes and letting Fisher get burned on Bryant's two warm-up jumpers in the fourth quarter was a misstep. Westbrook still has an astonishing two turnovers in 96 combined minutes of play in this series, but he also managed to create only one assist for a teammate on Friday.
And yet, there they were. Kevin Durant with a 3-pointer to tie it with just a few ticks left, just a little to the side.
As much as we dug this game, it's unfortunate we'll have to see these two teams suit up again on Saturday night, because a back-to-back (and Los Angeles' 11th game in 20 days) rarely produces a good batch of basketball on the second end — even dating back to the 1990s in non-lockout years. Three games in, and with just 21 hours separating the final buzzer from the opening tipoff of Game 4, these teams are probably just all adjusted out. They know what they have to do.
And we know what we have to do. Watch.
Philadelphia 76ers 92, Boston Celtics 83 (series tied 2-2)
If I told you before the Sixers and Celtics tipped off on Friday night that the 76ers would win by a 92-69 score, you'd probably be a little surprised -- especially considering Boston's dominant turn in Game 3. But it certainly wouldn't have been the craziest idea, considering how Boston's offense can come and go, and that the 76ers were working in the midst of a must-win situation.
If I point out that the Sixers spotted the Celtics a 14-0 lead to start the game? Then things get a little dicey. Everyone expected this to be a long series, and in a long series everyone gets their blowout win, so, is this, perhaps, Philadelphia's blowout win? Even if the C's seemed well on their way to a blowout win in the opening quarter.
An odd game, obviously. Philadelphia showed absolutely no interest in playing smart basketball from the outset, matching tough perimeter jumpers with frantic, nervous play. Boston relented, though, after its hot start. The C's gave up too many turnovers, which allowed Philadelphia the chance to leak out in transition and chip away at the lead. Still, with Paul Pierce hitting from the outside and Andre Iguodala struggling mightily, Boston led by 18 in the third.
Then the Celtics went small. For some reason.
Brandon Bass is no great shakes, but the team missed his ability to connect on jumpers while he was on the bench in the second half. Ray Allen was murderously bad on both ends — missing four of six shots after starting the series by hitting 48 percent of his looks and getting beat continuously on defense. Sometimes by two different players on the same possession, after the Celtics switched. It was not fun to watch.
Philly just chipped. Evan Turner was awful from the floor (5 of 22) but he hit six of his nine free throws, and Lou Williams was the star of stars with 15 points off the bench while somehow registering eight assists in an incredibly ugly game. And after starting the game 2 of 8, Andre Iguodala hit 3 of 4 in the fourth quarter to somehow give the Sixers 33 points in the game's final 12 minutes. Sixty-one points in the second half for Philly after managing just 31 in the first half. Astonishing.
And yet, somehow during the entire run, I was a little nonplussed. Because Boston is so bad offensively and so banged up, it almost felt normal. Kevin Garnett has probably been the best player in the postseason thus far, but he's also had to hit his fair share of tough makes in the playoffs — and those tough makes weren't going down. Toss in the 17 Boston turnovers, both forced and unforced? It just makes sense.
Philly was desperate, but somehow they kept their nerve even in an easy spot to back down with both the early and third-quarter deficits. That's a credit to Doug Collins, and each member of that Sixers rotation. This team had every right to bow down after being dominated in a fourth consecutive quarter (dating back to Wednesday's Game 3, in the second quarter), and yet the team gave us a tidy (if borderline unwatchable) best-of-three series to pay attention to over the next week.
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