LOS ANGELES, Calif. - After two straight exhausting playoff games that went down to the last gasp, Kobe Bryant knows the Los Angeles Lakers can't hope to keep up with the younger, faster Oklahoma City Thunder.
They're better off slowing down the game — or even better yet, standing still at the free throw line.
That's what the Lakers did to near perfection in Game 3 on Friday night, and that's why they're still standing in a series with an opponent who can run circles around them.
Bryant made 18 free throws without a miss, scored 14 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter, and the Lakers rallied late for a 99-96 victory, cutting the Thunder's second-round series lead to 2-1.
Metta World Peace swiped the ball from Kevin Durant and hit two free throws with 12.9 seconds left for the third-seeded Lakers, who shook off the memory of their late collapse in Game 2 with a steady comeback from a late five-point deficit. Bryant's effort at the line set a franchise playoff record, and the Lakers needed every free throw.
"If it's an up-and-down game, we don't have a shot," said Bryant, who surpassed Gail Goodrich's 1972 team record of 17 free throws without a miss. "We've got to just slow down the game. Play our pace, play our tempo, and we'll give ourselves a great opportunity."
When Durant missed a potential tying 3-pointer before Andrew Bynum blocked Serge Ibaka's shot at the buzzer, the Lakers' frenzied crowd celebrated only their second victory in the last six playoff games.
Game 4 in the back-to-back set is Saturday night, which won't help the Lakers' weary legs in their 11th playoff game in 21 days.
Yet while the Thunder have shown more skill and athleticism than the Lakers can match, Los Angeles has largely controlled the tempo for two straight games.
Who knows what's possible in the shadow of the Lakers' 16 championship banners?
"We continued to work, even when they got the lead a couple of times in the fourth quarter," said Pau Gasol, who had 12 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. "It's in us. We want to win this series, we want to beat this team, and we will do whatever it takes. Obviously, we know how hard it is going to be, but we are ready for it."
Durant scored 31 points before missing his last shot for Oklahoma City, which seemed poised to move to the brink of its second straight trip to the Western Conference finals with a five-point lead inside the final 3 minutes. Instead, the Thunder lost for the first time in the post-season, getting outscored 12-4 down the stretch.
After blowing a seven-point lead in the final 2 minutes of Game 2, Los Angeles finished Game 3 on a 6-2 run in the final 33 seconds, all on free throws. The Lakers went 41 for 42 from the line, including 26 for 27 in the second half.
"You have to knock those freebies down," Lakers coach Mike Brown said. "You're not going to get any better look in a game than a free throw. That's how good (the Thunder) are."
The Lakers said the 41-of-42 performance at the line was the second-best in NBA playoff history for teams with more than 30 attempts. Only Dallas' 49-for-50 effort against San Antonio on May 19, 2003, was better.
Russell Westbrook and James Harden scored 21 points apiece for the Thunder, who couldn't match the Lakers' late-game execution after soundly out-executing the Lakers in Game 2.
"We put them on the line," Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. "We can't do that. Down the stretch, you have to defend them without fouling and rebound the basketball. Unfortunately, we came up short."
Bynum had 15 points and 11 rebounds for the Lakers, who got 12 points apiece from Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake. The Lakers didn't appear worried while flirting with an 0-3 deficit, which has never been overcome in NBA history.
Oklahoma City's bench celebrated a 92-87 lead on Westbrook's breakaway dunk with 2:55 to play, but the Lakers trimmed away with Gasol's free throws, Bryant's layup and several possessions of tenacious defence. Bryant's free throws put the Lakers ahead with 1:09 to play.
Durant immediately hit a go-ahead jumper with a hand squarely in his face, but Bryant added two more free throws — his 15th and 16th — to put Los Angeles ahead 95-94. The Thunder finished 26 of 28 from the line, but the Lakers went 17 for 18 in the fourth quarter alone.
"We knew they were going to approach the game with a lot of intensity down 0-2," Durant said. "We did a great job of fighting back and taking a lead. ... We can play any type of basketball. That's what's good about our team. We can play fast. We can play slow. That's what tonight was, and so was Game 2. But both games, we did a good job of fighting. Tonight, we just didn't come out on top."
The game was the first of four second-round NBA playoff games in just over 48 hours at Staples Center, also the site of the NHL's Western Conference finals between and Kings and Phoenix on Thursday and Sunday. The top-seeded San Antonio Spurs will face the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday in an afternoon game before the Thunder and Lakers play Game 4.
Thanks to the NBA's shortened schedule, the Lakers are playing their first back-to-back playoff games since May 22-23, 1999, in the second round against San Antonio during another season shortened by labour strife.
Staples Center was bubbling with energy even before tipoff, with thousands of Lakers fans actually deigning to wear the gold giveaway T-shirts that are usually tucked under chairs or slung over shoulders.
Tempers flared in the second quarter when Westbrook furiously attempted to prevent World Peace from tying him up for a jump ball. World Peace's knee came down on Westbrook's leg during a brief skirmish including Jordan Hill, and both Westbrook and World Peace received technical fouls.
The Lakers made their first 28 foul shots before Bynum missed with 9:15 to play.
NOTES: Before the game, Gasol received the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for his charity work as a UNICEF ambassador. World Peace won the award last season. ... Kendrick Perkins had six points in 30 minutes, but Brooks put no limit on his minutes in the back-to-back games despite the veteran's sore hip. ... NBA Commissioner David Stern, Denzel Washington, Snoop Dogg, The Game, Ice Cube, Redskins QB Robert Griffin III and the Los Angeles Kings' Mike Richards, Drew Doughty and Jarret Stoll attended the game.