1. Lakers Win, But No Time To Celebrate
There were nights this season that Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike Brown called these kinds of games -- the kind where neither team shoots above 40 percent -- enjoyable to watch. He didn't use that term Friday night. The playoffs don't offer time for joy, not when you're still down two games to one.
What the Lakers got from their 99-96 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 3 was relief ... and renewed life in this series. The digging of their graves can wait for another day -- literally one more day, in this case. On Saturday the Lakers play the second end of their first playoff games on back-to-back days since 1999.
They got the reprieve through means that only Brown seems to find aesthetically pleasing. They did it first with defense, then with rebounds. An Andrew Bynum blocked shot here, a Metta World Peace deflection there.
"You've got to do what it takes to win at this point," Bryant said.
The Lakers also got the victory via the side benefit of superstar status: trips to the free throw line.
Bryant shot 18 free throws and made them all, leading a Lakers free throw parade of 41 makes in 42 tries. It was a playoff free throw performance surpassed only by the Dallas Mavericks' 49 makes in 50 tries on May 19, 2003, in San Antonio. Six of the Lakers' last eight points came from the line as they erased a five-point deficit in the final three minutes.
"Every possession is huge in a series against a very good team like the Thunder," Brown said. "When you talk about possessions, that means if you get fouled and step to the free throw line, you have to knock them down."
With the exception of Bynum's lone miss in 12 tries, they did just that. The Lakers were forced to convert at such a high rate because the Thunder made 26-of-28. The discrepancy in attempts was most noticeable in the fourth quarter, when the Lakers shot 18 free throws to the Thunder's 10.
There was some private grumbling among the Thunder about fouls that didn't have any bearing on the play being called, but Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks didn't mention the officials at all when he addressed the media.
"We fouled too many times," Brooks said. "That's the bottom line. Forty-two is a high number.
"We were using our hands. Fouling too much."
Bryant said: "I drive the ball and be aggressive, I'll get those calls most of the time."
Pau Gasol was also aggressive, in his own way. He had 11 rebounds on the night, and in the fourth quarter he dug out two offensive rebounds and tracked down an errant pass that could have easily boosted the Lakers' turnover total beyond 15. That's how Gasol made a rare trip to the postgame interview podium without scoring a fourth-quarter field goal.
"I was trying to make an impact on the game," Gasol said. "At the end of the game, you've got to hustle. You've got to fight through fatigue and come up with positive things for your team. That's what I was trying to do; make sure I stay active. Pursue balls, pursue rebounds, give ourselves another opportunity to score."
In the process he gave the Lakers a chance to even the series in Game 4, rather than just play out the string.
The Lakers feel as if they are gaining ground. They've been able to turn Kevin Durant into a passer often enough, including on a possession in the final 20 seconds when the Lakers led by a point and it was Serge Ibaka who wound up taking the shot. They aren't allowing Russell Westbrook as many open pull-up jumpers in the lane. They got 12 points apiece from Steve Blake and the previously AWOL Ramon Sessions.
The question is whether their older bodies will allow them to execute their strategies with such a quick turnaround time. When they had to transition from the seventh game of the first round against Denver to the opener of this series in 48 hours, they got blown out. They're the older team -- which Bryant accentuated to comedic effect as he wheezed like Fred Sanford while squeezing past Gasol to sit at the postgame dais.
"It's going to be all will and desire and effort, just pushing ourselves through anything we might be feeling," Gasol said.
From the Thunder's perspective, they absorbed the Lakers' surge of home-court energy that pushed L.A. to an early 12-point lead and were in position to win this game. They had another single-digit turnover game.
"We took their first hit and threw a few back," Durant said.
With neither team practicing Saturday before the game, there won't be any way to run through dramatic changes. Besides, we've reached the point of the series when the adjustments are pretty much over.
"Oklahoma City knows exactly what we're doing, we know exactly what they're doing," Brown said. "And the team that's the most physical is going to win."
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
MVP: Hard not to pick the shooting guard who scored 14 points in the final 9:15. Kobe Bryant shot only 3-for-8 from the field in the final quarter, but he hit all 18 of his free throws throughout the game, including the final two that forced the Thunder into taking a poor 3-pointer instead of attacking the lane. Bryant finished with 36 points, and though his offense didn't stray from the predictable crunch-time offense the Lakers hang their hat on, it paid dividends.
X factor: Every free throw. In a league where players normally shoot around 70 percent from the foul line, the Lakers and Thunder put on a historic performance from the charity stripe. Oklahoma City finished 26-of-28 (92.9 percent) from the line, but they couldn't compete with the Lakers, who converted 41-of-42 (97.6 percent) -- 17-of-18 in the final frame.
That was … quite the fight: Double technicals in the first half, a combined 52 fouls called and 70 free throws, and an intense back-and-forth fight throughout the fourth quarter. This was playoff basketball at its finest, and it guarantees the series goes at least two more games.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Andre Iguodala, whose relationship with the Sixers' fan base generally oscillates between "uneasy" and "contentious," is mending fences this postseason. The artist formerly known as Iggy was tremendous down the stretch again on Friday, hitting a 3-pointer to tie it at 79, a go-ahead 17-footer, then another 3 to effectively ice it with 36 seconds left. He finished with 16 points and seven rebounds.
LVP: After looking unstoppable in the series' first three games, Kevin Garnett just looked 35 years old. KG managed nine points on 3-of-12 shooting.
That was … an unlikely comeback: The Celtics ran out to a 14-0 lead before four minutes had been played and led the whole way until the Sixers drew even on a Thad Young bucket with 10:30 remaining in the final quarter. The Sixers, who hit just nine of their first 43 shots, shot 22-of-39 from there on out, while Boston managed just an 11-of-35 mark in the second half.
3. Friday's Best
Kobe Bryant, Lakers: The NBA's best closer was up to his usual tricks, scoring 14 of his game-high 36 points in the fourth quarter. He also had seven rebounds and six assists as the Lakers cut the series deficit to 2-1.
4. Friday's Worst
Celtics' bench: Even with Ray Allen coming off the bench, the Celtics still don't have the firepower to keep up with the Sixers' reserves. In the battle of non-starters, Boston was outscored 44-12 by Philadelphia.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
This will have to be one of the best come backs ever for the @Sixers. Down 15 at the half. Long odds but definitely possible.— Adam Aron (@SixersCEOAdam)
7. Dunk Of The Night
8. Quote Of The Night
"I don't even know where to start. Our guys are pretty amazing. They really are."
-- Philadelphia coach Doug Collins after the 76ers' second-half rally against the Celtics.
9. Rondo's Big Night
10. Stats Check
The 76ers spotted the Celtics a two-touchdown lead, allowing Boston to score the game's first 14 points, but then roared back to take a 92-83 decision that evened their playoff series at two wins apiece. That was the most points scored by one team to start an NBA playoff game since the 76ers scored the first 15 points in a 107-86 win at Indianapolis in Game 5 of an Eastern Conference semifinals series in the spring of 2000. (By the way, since those 2000 playoffs, 14 teams have scored the first 10 or more points of an NBA playoff game, and six of those 14 teams, including the Celtics on Friday night, wound up losers.)
The 76ers actually trailed by 18 points, 49-31, early in the third quarter. Only one other team in the 2012 playoffs has overcome a lead that large to win a game: The Clippers did that in Memphis in Game 1 of their first-round series, after they trailed by 27 points. The last time the Sixers won a playoff game after having trailed by as many as 18 points was in their first game of the 2009 playoffs, when they overcame an 18-point deficit to surprise the Magic in Orlando.