Lakers/Thunder Game 6 Recap
by Todd Spehr
The air went out of the building. Russell Westbrook, whose 23-footer missed as time expired, stared forward in disbelief. Kevin Durant immediately hit the deck, went face-first to the Ford Center floor, and started beating on the wood with the palm of his hand. Jeff Green was hunched over, hands on knees with his head down, at mid-court. For two or three or maybe five seconds, this was the scene in Oklahoma City as the gallant Thunder had ran out of miracles in a season, really, that was full of them, bowing out to the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers after a 95-94 loss in Game 6 of their opening round series.
But then something happened. The crowd that supported them through relocation and a 23-win introduction, that had carried this team all season, that had even carried the Thunder from a seven-point deficit with five minutes to go to a late lead, started to cheer. Loud City got loud for the umpteenth time. This was no morgue. It was appreciation; a celebration. Phil Jackson, apparently not void of feeling, called it “heartwarming,” while his counterpart, Scott Brooks, called his crowd’s energy “unmatched.” The players gathered at the foul line in front of their bench, and Durant, their best player, stood in the middle. Later, he told reporters that his message to his teammates – or as KD said, his brothers — was to savor this feeling, and that next season starts now.
Kobe Bryant’s Lakers had clinched this series in a somewhat illogical way. It took until the first possession of the fourth quarter for a second Laker to reach double-figures in points, and that was Shannon Brown. There was once again a major disparity in foul shooting (or, it could be argued, aggressiveness) – the Lakers only made 9 of 14, the Thunder were 27 of 31. The Lakers forced a measly six turnovers. Jackson spoke of his desire to lessen the Thunder’s offensive spread and have no more than two impact offensively, yet OKC had five players in double figures. And (yes, there’s an “and”), Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, who held a distinct advantage when used, combined for just 15 points.
Despite that, L.A. held a 91-84 lead with just over five minutes left. It was a lead largely traced to Bryant’s brilliant third quarter, when for the first time all series he was scoring and shooting efficiently. When Bryant’s in a groove, one thing he does so well is create space. He’s so comfortable with his rhythm and the spot on the floor where he operates from that the defender becomes almost redundant. Durant, forever bumped and nudged and attacked by Ron Artest, never had a moment like that in this series. Bryant didn’t find it in until the clincher. He scored 16 of L.A.’s 23 points in the third.
That fourth quarter lead caved in as the crowd lifted the Thunder. Durant broke free for a three-pointer (he was, incidentally, 2-5 on 3s and yet just 3 for 18 on 2s); Westbrook hit his world famous foul-line pull-up; Westbrook then had a three-point play off an offensive rebound; then Durant hit a driving layup with 2:30 left, completing the 10-0 run to give OKC a 94-91 lead. Durant, the League’s leading scorer, didn’t take another shot.
Bryant found himself with the ball in his hands with 18 seconds remaining and down one. When he got to what he later called his “sweet spot,” and pulled up, there was an air of inevitability as he released. But, Bryant missed and the ball caromed free. Pau Gasol, who Bryant later credited for not quitting on the play and perhaps should have been commended for not quitting on the game when he hardly got a post feed, rose above all others and tipped it in with 00.5 left. Ballgame.
Bryant called the Thunder (he used the word “stallions”) an enjoyable matchup, one that he expects to be renewed yearly. They forced his Lakers to play hard, Bryant noted, and claimed OKC “broke us” in Game 4, raising LA’s ensuing level of play. He spoke about individual Playoff initiation, something he knows all about, that heartbreak and failure develops “an inner toughness” that Durant will no doubt benefit from.
By the time Durant and Westbrook emerged from the locker room and reached the postgame press conference, several waves of emotion had long passed through them. Durant was asked for how long would his poor shooting series linger; he said, simply, that it wouldn’t, that he gave his all in a tough series and that’s all he can expect from himself. Durant spoke about how there are better days ahead, that he and his teammates are “blessed and privileged” to not only be part of this league but this city as well, and that he’ll learn from the post-season peaks and valleys. Westbrook reminisced about training camp, when the aspirations were very high despite coming off a 23-win season, and about how his team repeatedly showed toughness all season long. Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder’s exciting present and enticing future, then stood together and slid out a side exit and into the hallway.
“I’m glad we are done with y’all,” were the words yelled from the hallway in their direction as they left. It was Kobe Bryant.