By JEFF LATZKE | The Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Down in desperation time, Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks called on Kevin Durant to show that he’s more than just a three-time scoring champion. And that meant guarding one of the NBA’s all-time best.
Durant was up to the challenge, keeping Kobe Bryant from excelling as usual in his closer’s role while sparking the Thunder’s rally for a 77-75 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals Wednesday night.
Durant scored 22 points and rattled in the go-ahead basket on a baseline runner with 18 seconds left as Oklahoma City scored the final nine points. He also had a crucial steal from Bryant to fuel the rally.
“People talk about how I score the ball,” said Durant, one of only seven players to lead the NBA in scoring three straight seasons.
“They don’t look at me when we go on the other end. I think this whole playoff run, I’ve been picking it up on the defensive end.”
Oklahoma City trailed by seven with 2 minutes left before surging back with a series of defensive stops by its stars to rally from that deficit in the closing stages of a game for the second time this postseason. The Thunder also were down by seven with 2 1/2 minutes left in Game 1 of the first round against defending NBA champion Dallas.
“They won’t quit. That’s not in their DNA,” Brooks said. “They’re not wired that way and if they were, they wouldn’t be here. We’re not going to win every game, but we’re going to fight to the last second of the game and we did that tonight.
“If we would have gotten down on ourselves with 2 minutes to go, we would have lost by 12 and we would go to L.A. 1-1.”
Instead, Oklahoma City takes a 2-0 lead into Game 3 on Friday night at Staples Center.
Bryant and Andrew Bynum scored 20 points apiece for the Lakers, who came up empty on their last six possessions after Bynum’s hook shot made it 75-68 with 2:09 remaining.
Struggling throughout the second half and missing 20 of their first 27 shots, the Thunder came alive after Brooks called a timeout when Bynum’s basket gave Los Angeles its largest lead of the game.
James Harden drove for a layup before Durant used his height advantage to reach up and tip away a pass from Bryant. He then ran out for a right-handed dunk at the other end.
Brooks had switched Durant onto Bryant with about 5 minutes left, after Bryant had hit a pair of jumpers as the Lakers started to inch away.
“That wasn’t the game plan going in, but there was a moment when I thought Kobe was starting to fill it and I thought Kevin’s length would bother him,” Brooks said.
That’s exactly how it played out – with the 6-foot-9 Durant using his wingspan to come up with an energizing steal and fast-break chance.
Russell Westbrook then forced another turnover by challenging an outlet pass to Bryant along the sideline. Officials originally ruled that it went off Westbrook, but changed the call after seeing on replay that he didn’t touch it and Bryant whiffed on the contested catch.
“What they did the last few minutes there, they just made gambles,” Bryant said. “They just jumped in the passing lanes. It’s something that we’re not accustomed to seeing. It’s just flat-out risks defensively.”
Harden made the next stop, blocking Bryant’s jumper on the Lakers’ next possession and getting a layup in transition off it to cut the deficit to one in the final minute.
Bryant then missed on a 3-pointer and the Thunder got the ball back with the chance to take the lead and Durant was able to make it happen on the offensive end.
“I think Kevin has improved on being a two-way player,” Brooks said. “I think the last three years it’s taken our team to a different level and it takes his game to a different level.”
Steve Blake missed an open 3-pointer from the right side with about 5 seconds left after Metta World Peace couldn’t get the ball to Bryant on the inbounds play.
Bryant, who was the primary option on the play, said Blake’s shot was in the air by the time he turned around to look for an inbounds pass.
“Blake was wide open. We didn’t have any timeouts left and he got a clean look, a really good look,” World Peace said.
“He can knock that down.”
Durant was then fouled with 0.3 seconds left and made his first try before missing the second on purpose – failing to hit the backboard or rim for a violation.
The Lakers got a desperation try, but Harden intercepted World Peace’s long pass for Bynum.
Westbrook added 15 points for Oklahoma City, which matched its lowest scoring total of the season but still gutted out the win. The Thunder had ripped apart the Lakers’ defense with their pick-and-roll attack in Game 1, scoring 119 points in a 29-point blowout.
Pau Gasol had 14 points and 11 rebounds for L.A.
Historically, the loss makes a huge difference. Los Angeles is 29-12 when splitting the first two games of a seven-game series and has lost 17 of 19 when falling into a 2-0 hole. The Lakers’ last comeback was in the 2004 West semifinals against San Antonio.
The Thunder have won all nine of their series after leading 2-0, dating to the franchise’s days in Seattle.
“We’ve got to win,” Bynum said. “It’s do or die come Friday.”
Bryant almost led the Lakers to a big bounce-back victory in this one.
He drilled a jumper from the left wing and Blake followed with a 3-pointer before World Peace hit one of two free throws for a 69-63 advantage with 7:27 remaining. Bryant then answered Serge Ibaka’s jumper before missing his final five shots.
He also had a hand in two turnovers in the final 2 minutes, the first created by Durant’s defense.
“He used his length on Kobe. Coming up with that steal was huge,” Lakers’ coach Mike Brown said. “That’s what great players are supposed to do. They’re supposed to take on the challenge at the end of the game and he did.
“He won the game for them, basically.”
Notes: The NBA fined Devin Ebanks $25,000 on Wednesday for actions related to his Game 1 ejection and Bynum $15,000 for failing to speak to reporters Tuesday. Bynum talked at the Lakers’ morning shootaround Wednesday and called it a make up for skipping the previous day. … Harden caught World Peace with an inadvertent elbow to the face in the first quarter. … After making 10 of 15 shots in Game 1, Westbrook was 5 for 17.