Kobe, Lakers Relieved to Escape Young Thunder's Onslaught
OKLAHOMA CITY -- In a corridor deep in the bowels of the Ford Center, a tired Kobe Bryant, the NBA player of the last decade, embraced the guy who could end up being the player of this decade. OK, so maybe second behind LeBron James.
"Oh, man, we're glad to be done with you guys,'' Bryant said to Kevin Durant after Friday night's game. "Jesus Christ.''
Were Bryant's Lakers ever glad to escape Durant's Thunder, a young team as athletic as lightning. It looked as if the series was bound for a seventh game in Los Angeles when Bryant misfired on a 13-foot jumper from the right side as the clock clicked toward all zeroes.
But there came forward Pau Gasol riding a white horse. He tipped in Bryant's miss with half a second remaining, and the Lakers escaped with a 95-94 win to take the West first-round series 4-2.
"I'm glad we won't see those young [bleepers] any more,'' Bryant, exiting the arena, said when asked by FanHouse about his relief.
But the Lakers will see them plenty in the future, Kobe?
"But not this year,'' said Bryant, who scored a game-high 32 points as the Lakers advanced to face Utah in a West semifinal that begins Sunday.
The Thunder gave the Lakers just about everything they could handle in an exhilarating series, with the games at the Ford Center played before the loudest NBA crowds you'll ever hear. It was still loud even after the game ended.
After the final buzzer, the teams exchanged handshakes. Every soul in the stands was standing for an ovation for the home team.
Durant gathered his teammates near the free-throw line. He was talking to them as if the game still had time remaining.
You've heard the phrase about failing to leave the court in a timely manner when a player or coach is fined or suspended by the NBA for actions after an ejection. Well, nobody left the court in a timely manner after Friday's game, and it was a beautiful sight to behold.
"The fans were phenomenal all season,'' said Durant, who, hounded by Ron Artest, struggled through a horrid 5-of-23 shooting night, but still the led the Thunder with 26 points. "It's something we really appreciate. ... They come cheer for us every game, not just the playoffs.
"I was in the huddle [after the game], I just told the guys that next season starts now. Go back to wherever they live and continue just work and work and every time we're together we get better with each other. I love them, and we'll be back next year. We're all brothers in this group. ... It's tough for us because we're so close, we definitely don't want to go home.''
The eighth-seeded Thunder, who surprisingly went 50-32, has time on its side to become a West powerhouse. In the meantime, this series will go down as helping the top-seeded Lakers. That the defending champs have a very favorable matchup in the next round with the Jazz doesn't hurt either.
"Every year in the playoffs, every series, what you try to do is get better,'' said Bryant, who called the Thunder a "team of stallions.''
"And this series forced us to play hard every possession because Oklahoma demanded that from us," he added. "We feel we're a better ball club for that.''
Every outing was tough for the Lakers except Game 5, when they romped 111-87. The slumbering Lakers obviously had been given some smelling salts when they were blasted 110-89 in Game 4 at the Ford Center.
Not wanting to take any chance of what might happen in a Game 7, Bryant wasn't doing any of the deferring he'd done in some previous games. He came out firing, and had 30 points through three quarters.
But Bryant doesn't have the young legs just about everybody has on the Thunder. Playing the game's final 6:21 after he sat out more than nine minutes due to his fourth foul, Bryant had just two more points on 1-of-4 shooting.
The Thunder, meanwhile, used a 10-0 run to turn a 91-84 deficit into a 94-91 lead with 2:30 remaining on a driving layup by Durant. But Durant didn't get another shot the rest of the game. And guard Russell Westbrook, whose six points had spurred the comeback, suddenly looked inexperienced when he bricked his final four jumpers, including a desperation three-point heave from the right corner at the buzzer following Gasol's tip.
Bryant had looked ready to beat the Thunder himself when he set up at his "sweet spot'' and launched a jumper over Westbrook. When it missed, Gasol rescued the Lakers.
"The last shot, I kept battling and hustling,'' said Gasol, who managed just nine points on 4-of-11 shooting but grabbed a game-high 18 rebounds. "I didn't have a good shooting night, but I just continued to be effective rebounding and keeping balls alive. Luckily, I pursued that ball and I put it in.''
And, luckily for the Lakers, they don't have to play a nerve-wracking Game 7 for the second straight year in a series in which they had been heavily favored. And this spunky Oklahoma City team conjured up few memories of last season's wounded Houston outfit that was without Yao Ming and ended up getting walloped in Game 7.
"It is going to be an enjoyable matchup for the next several years,'' Bryant said at his post-game press conference about battles with the Thunder in future seasons. "We look forward to these types of challenges.''
Saying future games against the Thunder will be enjoyable might be a bit of stretch. But it's no stretch to say Bryant found it quite enjoyable to be done with Oklahoma City for this season as he headed minutes later to the team bus.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson.