OKLAHOMA CITY — Scuffling through a rough shooting night, Kevin Durant wanted to do anything he could to keep the Oklahoma City Thunder from falling hopelessly behind the Los Angeles Lakers.
So, why not take on the task of defending Kobe Bryant?
Durant had 29 points and 19 rebounds, and snapped out of a shooting funk while guarding Bryant to lead the decisive run, lifting the Thunder to a 101-96 victory in Game 3 on Thursday night in the first playoff game in Oklahoma City.
“Scoring’s a big part of my game. It kind of overshadows the other parts of my game,” said Durant, who at 21 became the youngest player to lead the NBA in scoring. “But if I continue to play hard on both ends, it’s going to come around for me. I was able to get free and make a couple shots, and that’s what got us going.”
Durant and Russell Westbrook scored 22 of the final 23 for the Thunder, including every point during a 10-2 surge that put Oklahoma City ahead to stay.
The top-seeded Lakers got back within 98-96 on Bryant’s driving layup with 13.5 seconds left, but the Thunder closed it out from the foul line to pull within 2-1 in the seven-game series.
Game 4 is Saturday night in Oklahoma City.
Durant celebrated by thumping his chest and popping his jersey to show off the “Thunder” printed on the front while Westbrook, who scored 27 points, flapped his arms to egg on the screaming crowd.
“It feels good. Playing against the reigning champs makes it even better. But we have a long ways to go,” said Durant, who missed his first seven shots and 15 of his first 19. “It does feel good to get our first win. It feels even better to bring the first win in the playoffs here to Oklahoma City. That’s what I’m most excited about.”
Bryant scored 24 points to surpass Jerry West’s franchise record for playoff scoring, and Pau Gasol had 17 points and 15 rebounds for Los Angeles.
But when it came down to crunch time, Bryant couldn’t deliver as he did in scoring 15 fourth-quarter points to seal the Lakers’ 95-92 victory in Game 2. He went 2 for 10 in the final 12 minutes, with Durant stopping between free throws at one point to motion to the bench that he wanted to guard the former MVP.
“It was a matchup that caught me by surprise,” said Bryant, who’s nearly half a foot shorter than Durant. “I think he did a great job.”
Undaunted by a raucous sellout crowd, the Lakers scored the first 10 points of the game and were in control until the Thunder roared back with an electrifying run of eight straight points late in the third quarter.
The fans reached a deafening pitch as the Thunder completed their charge back from an 11-point deficit set off by Westbrook’s right-handed tomahawk dunk.
James Harden and Durant followed with back-to-back 3-pointers to tie it at 74, and Oklahoma City finally took its first lead of the game on its opening possession of the fourth quarter.
“That was the loudest I’ve ever heard a crowd get,” said Harden, a rookie reserve who scored 18 points after going scoreless in Games 1 and 2. “That Russell dunk was just amazing and the back-to-back 3s, it just rattled the place.”
Andrew Bynum pulled Los Angeles even for the final time by powering through Collison’s hard foul for a right-handed dunk, then hitting the ensuing free throw to tie it at 80.
Durant answered at the other end with a jumper from the right side with 8:41 left to give Oklahoma City the lead for good, then converted Bryant’s turnover into a two-handed jam on a fast break.