Playing with a broken finger, sore knee and bum ankle, Bryant scored 39 points, carrying the Lakers in the fourth quarter when they lost the lead three times, and Los Angeles beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 95-92 on Tuesday night to take a 2-0 lead in their Western Conference playoff series.
“What did Mark Twain say? Rumors of my demise or whatever,” said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who predicted before the game that Bryant would strongly return to form.
Bryant was 13 of 15 from the free throw line, but just 12 of 28 from the floor in front of his dad Joe, who sat next to the Lakers’ bench.
“My free throws felt good,” Bryant said. “I put in a lot, a lot of work over the last month fine-tuning my stroke and trying to get it back to being consistent.”
Beforehand, Jackson said he wanted Bryant to shoot better or take fewer shots. The NBA finals MVP made just 30 percent of his shots over his previous five games, having missed four of the final five of the regular season and hearing all the doubters.
“After 13 years, you’d think they’d know better,” Bryant said.
Bryant ran off eight straight points the first time the Lakers fell behind by one, with the referees turning a 3-pointer into a 2-pointer that put them back in front by three.
This time, Gasol had 25 points and 12 rebounds, and Bynum six points and 10 boards for the defending champions, who failed to sustain their strong start for the second straight game.
“That was about as well as we can play and we came up a little short,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “Two games in a row we gave the effort defensively. We’re still trying to figure out how to win these close games.”
Game 3 is Thursday in Oklahoma City. The Lakers are 39-1 all-time when winning the first two games of a best-of-seven series.
“That place is going to be rocking and rolling,” Bryant said. “The last time we were there they did a number on us.”
“Our effort was phenomenal, how hard we played on the defensive end,” Durant said. “A lot of people didn’t even think we could play with these guys.”
Bryant scored 15 points in the fourth, but sent the crowd into an anguished groan when he missed the first of two free throws with 15 seconds left. He made the second to keep Los Angeles ahead 94-92.
Durant missed a 3-pointer and Gasol got fouled, but he also missed the first with 7 seconds left, keeping the Thunder’s hopes alive. Gasol hit the second, and then Jeff Green(notes), who had 12 points, missed a 3-pointer as time expired.
“We were right there,” Green said. “We haven’t had our best offensive game or defensive game, still allowing second-chance points, but we’re still there when it comes to the last few minutes.”
The Thunder led three times, but Bryant twice brought the Lakers back, the last time tying the game at 88 on two free throws. The game was decided at the line over the final 2:20, with the Thunder forced to foul while missing from the perimeter.
The Lakers shot 37 percent, a stat Jackson called “horrendous.”
“We still have to shoot much better to beat them in Oklahoma,” he said.
The Lakers regained the edge in the third quarter, although not by much. Their largest lead was six and it dwindled to 73-69 going into the final 12 minutes. Durant was called for goaltending on the Lakers’ last basket or the Thunder would’ve trailed by two.
With every starter except Bynum on the bench to start the second quarter, the Lakers extended their lead to 37-26. But the Thunder outscored them 21-8 to lead 47-45 going into halftime, despite Westbrook picking up his third foul midway through the period.
Durant had nine points in the spurt, with he and Green hitting back-to-back 3-pointers. The Lakers were limited to 33 percent shooting, with Bryant going 2 of 7. The Thunder had nine blocked shots in the half.
The Lakers owned the first quarter in a repeat of their strong start to Game 1. They outscored the Thunder 26-18, with Bryant scoring eight of their first 13 points. The Thunder shot 29 percent from the floor.
NOTES: The Lakers unveiled a bronze statue of late announcer Chick Hearn outside Staples Center before the game. … Craig Calloway of Compton hit a halfcourt shot between the third and fourth quarters and won $235,000. Jackson saw it, interrupted his TV interview, smiled and said, “Somebody made a shot. It wasn’t us.” … Celeb sightings: Charlize Theron, David Beckham, Kid Rock, Jack Nicholson, David Spade, Adam Levine, Andy Garcia, Minnesota Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis, and Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor.