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Fourth quarter problems leave Lakers frustrated

Date
Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers falls as he dribbles the ball in the second quarter while taking on the Oklahoma City Thunder in game four of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs.

Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers falls as he dribbles the ball in the second quarter while taking on the Oklahoma City Thunder in game four of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs. Photo: Getty Images

The hour was late, the arena had emptied and Kobe Bryant’s roar had been reduced to a low murmur.

For eight taut minutes Saturday night, Bryant tried to sustain the Los Angeles Lakers through the sheer force of his jump shot. When that failed, he turned the aggression toward his teammates.

‘‘The other guys,’’ Bryant said quietly, pointedly, ‘‘got to be more aggressive. Simple as that.’’

It was a message meant to rally the troops, not demean them, but Bryant’s seething frustration — telegraphed after a 103-100 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder — sounded more like a desperate last gasp.

The Lakers blew a 13-point fourth-quarter lead, their second collapse in this second-round playoff series, leaving them with a 3-1 deficit and the possibility of being eliminated in Oklahoma City.

In the aftermath, Bryant chided teammates for turning meek and tentative in crunch time, particularly Pau Gasol, whose late turnover led directly to Kevin Durant’s winning 3-pointer.

‘‘Pau’s got to be more assertive,’’ Bryant said. ‘‘He’s the guy that they’re leaving. When he catches the ball, he’s looking to pass. He’s got to be aggressive. He’s got to shoot the ball, he’s got to drive the ball to the basket, and he will be the next game.’’

Whether out of necessity or a lack of confidence in his teammates, Bryant took the bulk of the shots in the fourth quarter. He went 2 for 10, as most of his attempts were well contested by Durant or James Harden.

While Bryant misfired, the Thunder rallied from a 91-78 deficit, tying the game at 96-96 on a fadeaway jumper by Durant with 1 minute 54 seconds to play. The score was tied again at 98-98 with about a minute left when Gasol committed the gaffe that may forever define this series.

He received the ball from Bryant just outside the lane about 8 feet from the rim, with a clear look at the basket. Gasol appeared to be partly into his shooting motion when he instead flung the ball across the lane, where it was picked off by Durant. Seconds later, Durant hit the 3-pointer that clinched the game.

‘‘Just a bad read on Pau’s part,’’ Bryant said. ‘‘It happens.’’
Bryant, who finished with 38 points, tried to match Durant’s shot, but his sideways 3-point try missed, forcing the Lakers to foul. Harden put the game away with two free throws.

‘‘Obviously, if I could have gone back, maybe I could have shot it, and I would have,’’ Gasol said. ‘‘But it’s one play, obviously at a critical time, but I don’t feel like we lost the game on one turnover. There’s plenty of bad plays or mistakes in the fourth.’’

The Lakers had built their lead partly on the strength of their big men, with Gasol and Andrew Bynum combining for 28 points, 14 rebounds and 6 blocks. But Gasol did not take a shot in the final period, and Bynum attempted only two, as the Thunder dedicated their defense to taking away the inside game.

They frequently fronted Bynum in the post, forcing the Lakers to look elsewhere, usually to Bryant, who was also well guarded. The person who was left open, Bryant said, was Gasol.

‘‘The shots that I took were tough shots,’’ Bryant acknowledged, adding: ‘‘So either we got to free myself up to get better looks in the fourth quarter, or other guys got to be aggressive. One or the other.’’

While Bryant pointed at Gasol, and others fixated on Bryant’s poor shooting, coach Mike Brown said the Lakers’ real problem was  defence. They surrendered 32 points in the fourth quarter — 21 by Durant and Russell Westbrook, who have easily been the two best players in the series.

‘‘We’re all upset and extremely frustrated,’’ Bryant said, ‘‘but I don’t think anybody’s particularly worried about going to OKC and getting a win.’’

The Lakers’ confidence and doubts stem from the same place: They had a 7-point lead with two minutes left in Game 2, and a 13-point lead with eight minutes to go in Game 4. They could easily be leading by 3-1 instead of trailing. But their late gaffes only underscore the problem. The Thunder, despite their youth, have been cooler, smarter and more precise in critical moments.

Durant and Westbrook, two of the game’s brightest young stars, are now a victory from their second straight Western Conference finals. The Lakers are one defeat from their second straight semi-final flameout. A loss would bring quick recriminations, including a possible trade of Gasol.

At 33, Bryant has a narrowing window for securing a sixth championship ring, and his patience is wearing thin.

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