Thunder sinks Lakers, prepare to battle Spurs
OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma City Thunder hopes to make more noise in the Western Conference finals that it did last year.
A year after losing in five games to the Dallas Mavericks for a berth in the NBA Finals, the Thunder will play the San Antonio Spurs in the West’s championship series. Game 1 will be Sunday in San Antonio.
Setting up the matchup with the top-seeded Spurs wasn’t much of a problem for second-seeded Oklahoma City, which closed out the Los Angeles Lakers in five games.
Russell Westbrook scored a team-high 28 points, Kevin Durant added 25 points, and the Thunder won 106-90 in Game 5 on Monday night inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 42 points, and Pau Gasol had 14 points and a game-high 16 rebounds for the Lakers.
While continuing its rapid rise to elite status, the Thunder got a small measure of redemption from two seasons ago, when the Lakers ousted a younger, more inexperienced Oklahoma City squad in six games in the opening round of the playoffs. The Lakers went on to win the NBA championship for the second straight season that year.
Now, the Thunder is looking to go all the way.
“We’ve been through so many different situations at different times,” Westbrook said. “We were down and lost a few in a row (in the regular season), won a few in a row, won close games, blowouts. It’s all helped us to get to where we are now. We’re back to where we were last year. Now we got to make the next jump.”
The red-hot Spurs, who have won 18 straight games dating to the regular season, are waiting, but the Thunder is confident it can compete with the Spurs despite losing the season series 2-1.
“We know San Antonio is playing the best basketball for probably the last three months of the season,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “The only games they lost is when (coach Gregg Popovich) took all their guys out. But they’ve won just about every game.”
If the improvement the Thunder showed against the Lakers is any indication, Oklahoma City will be ready for the challenge.
After taking an 83-77 lead into the fourth quarter, the Thunder broke free at the start of the final period, using a 10-0 run to blow open the game at 93-77 with 9:28 remaining.
A three-point play by Westbrook with 4:09 remaining sparked the surge. Westbrook intercepted a Ramon Sessions pass intended for Bryant and streaked the other way. As Westbrook got to the free-throw line, Sessions intentionally fouled him, wrapping him up in an attempt to prevent a basket. But Westbrook powered through the contact and banked in a runner before burying the ensuing foul shot.
“That was an amazing play,” Brooks said. “Obviously, there was a lot of luck to that, but he put himself in that position to get a little lucky there.”
Starting with that sequence, the Thunder went on a game-clinching 25-7 run.
The Lakers never got closer than 13 points the rest of the way.
“We have to give Oklahoma City credit,” Lakers coach Mike Brown said. “They did a heck of a job this entire series. They did a great job of closing games. At the end of games, including tonight’s game, they stepped up their physicality.”
The Thunder jumped out to a 26-21 lead after the first quarter behind a balanced attack that saw seven players score, none more than James Harden’s seven. The Lakers, on the other hand, had just three players contribute points, led by Bryant’s 15 on a sizzling 6-for-9 start.
Much of that imbalance for the Lakers stemmed from Los Angeles making it a point to go inside to Gasol, whom Bryant called out after Game 4 by publicly saying his team’s starting power forward needed to be more assertive. Gasol, however, missed five of his first six shots, and only one other Laker, Sessions, attempted more than one shot in the first.
Andrew Bynum, consequently, became the forgotten man. He then was plagued by foul trouble and was forced to sit for the final 4:44 of the opening period after being whistled for his second foul. Bynum attempted just one shot in the first quarter, and it took him 50 seconds into the second quarter to score his first basket, which came on alley-oop from Sessions.
Nonetheless, the Lakers made a push in the second quarter, using a 12-4 run to take a 35-32 lead on a three-point play by Bynum with 8:17 left in the half. Bynum scored seven points during the spurt. However, he picked up his third foul with 5:24 left in the half and was forced to return to the bench.
The Thunder responded with an 8-0 run to take a 40-35 lead midway through the period. The Lakers answered with a 12-6 spurt, capped by an acrobatic reverse dunk by Bryant, to go up 47-46.
Oklahoma City withstood the push to take a 54-51 halftime lead.
“It hurts when you lose,” Gasol said. “This team always has a huge desire and goal to win the championship, and when you fall short, it’s frustrating.”
Bynum finished with 10 points and four rebounds in 35 minutes.
NOTES: Westbrook was called for a technical foul with 7:28 remaining in the first quarter for arguing with an official. … Metta World Peace and Bryant were both whistled for technical fouls with 31.9 seconds left in the second quarter for arguing with a ref. … The Thunder snapped a streak of 14 consecutive road playoff losses to Los Angeles with a win in Game 4 on Saturday. The streak dated to the franchise’s days in Seattle.