LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 18: Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates after dunking against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs on May at Staples Center on May 18, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers won 99-96. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
The Los Angeles Lakers might have hope, after all, staying alive to end the disappointment of the mental breakdown in Game 2. When they needed to respond and avenge the losses of two disastrous games, the Lakers came away with a 99-96 victory Friday night in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals of the NBA playoffs and can tie the best-of-seven series if they win Game 4 Saturday night.
After barely erasing the memory of a dreadful beginning to this series, while nearly on the brink of dropping three straight to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Lakers yet again expressed emotion and life in a riveting battle. For a while now, we had the notion this series maybe, just maybe, was over for the Lakers. But, right now, we can't rule out the Lakers, especially after what happened Friday night, pulling off a must-win to extend the series and refusing to allow the Thunder to pull out the brooms for a chance to sweep them. Suddenly, it would be interesting to see whether or not Team LA could send it back to Oklahoma City tied 2-2 on Monday, and with a scorer as impeccable as Kobe Bryant in the fourth quarter and even a center as prolific as Andrew Bynum, when he does show up to have a consistent performance, the Lakers can beat the Thunder twice at home.
Now try to imagine how much public interest the Lakers would be given if they impressively bounce back and turn an unexciting semifinals into a dramatic, watchful spate of games. If there's one player enjoying it all, it's Kobe Bryant, the Lakers superstar who lives for the challenge against each opponent and hates to lose. What you and I saw was the Kobe Show, refusing to take another defeat and agonizing letdown that stopped the Lakers from gaining a step closer toward redemption. The strongest of them all was Bryant, as usual, to rescue Los Angeles from hell, and perhaps, the brink of elimination in which the Lakers would have been one game away from an second-round exit without a chance to erase the bitter destruction of the blowout in Game 4 against the Dallas Mavericks a year ago.
It's clear Bryant -- in the most important game of the Lakers' season -- was the catalyst and survived a long, gut-wrenching marathon. The marksman, Bryant, refused to watch his team trail in the playoffs. With his competitiveness and athleticism, he still has the capability and healthy body to play the game late in his 16-year career. He has played the game like an ageless shooting guard, a youthful veteran leader, longing for a championship when he already own five rings. You could see it in his eyes. You could sense it. This time around, the Lakers drew fouls and converted on 41 of 42 free throws. The quick turnaround was huge for the Lakers, and without Bryant's services, they would have most likely dropped dead. It was Bryant's usual determined, possessed stare, a serious facial expression, and indeed, he indicated it on the court by his body language, scoring 36 points and going a perfect 18 for 18 at the line.
Bryant was at the top of his game, and when he's at his best, he's ultimately that damn good. You never know what could happen with Kobe "Bean" Bryant on the court. Up until now, he and the Lakers were older, slower and age had been a glaring problem. In contrast, the Thunder were surely too quick, too aggressive and too potent. Fair or not, the expiration date is quickly approaching for Bryant, which is drawing much debate as to whether he can earn his sixth ring. If the Lakers lose, the talk around town will be that the Busses plan on drastically making changes and rebuilding around Bryant for an overhaul. The Lakers have plenty of work left -- amazingly, playing aggressively to resurrect any struggles that could have ended their season in a four-game sweep.
You can argue that the Thunder wouldn't be nearly as good or even more efficient than the Lakers if Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook weren't there. You can argue that the Thunder wouldn't be the deepest team in the playoffs if there were no James Harden. It was all about Bryant, the greatest scorer on earth, scoring 14 of his 36 points in the fourth. If he keeps knocking down shots and getting to the line, along with help from his supporting cast -- such as Steve Blake, who answered back after receiving death threats via Twitter by some idiot -- then fear the Lakers. Blake, serving as Bryant's sidekick, had 12 points and hustled for the ball much of the night. And it was good for Bynum, to be sure, though no one ever knows when he's a show or no-show.
He was reliable with 15 points and 11 rebounds, and then Gasol corralled 11 rebounds and delivered six assists. Though, Bynum was only 2-for-13 from the field, and made 11 of 12 free throws. At tip off, they were off to a quick start, controlling an eight-point by the end of the first quarter, but then later in the game they became too relaxed and torpid. At the end, the Lakers finished on a 12-4 run that erased a five-point deficit, and luckily Durant missed a potential game-tying three-pointer.
Right after, Bynum denied Serge Ibaka's shot at the buzzer, and the Lakers escaped while the home crowd sporting gold shirts celebrated. It's been exactly three days since they lost Game 2, blowing a seven-point lead by playing carelessly in the final two minutes, a game they had a chance to tie. It was strange, however, as it has been ever since he was traded out of town, to see Derek Fisher in an Oklahoma City blue uniform. But the Lakers were refocused and pulled off one of the toughest wins, without hanging their heads and giving up on themselves, which quickly turned this into an engaging matchup.
It's a start.
Old or not, don't rule the Lakers out.
For more news and notes on Lakers basketball, be sure to read Silver Screen and Roll.