By Ben Bolch, Los Angeles Times –
LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers got the ending right this time.
Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace made sure of it Friday night at Staples Center, helping the Lakers hold on for a frantic 99-96 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals.
Bryant scored 36 points, including the go-ahead free throws with 33 seconds left, and World Peace added a key strip of Kevin Durant under the basket following a missed jumper by Serge Ibaka and a pair of late free throws.
(PHOTO: The Los Angeles Lakers’ Matt Barnes (9) tries to block the shot of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook (0) in the first half in Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, on Wednesday, May 18, 2012.)
The Thunder had a chance to tie in the final seconds, but Durant misfired on a three-pointer and Lakers center Andrew Bynum capped the wild finish by blocking Ibaka’s putback attempt.
The Lakers, who made 41 of 42 free throws to cut the Thunder’s lead to 2-1 in the series, won’t have long to savor their first triumph in a second-round series in more than two years. Game 4 is Saturday night at Staples Center, marking the Lakers’ first back-to-back situation in the playoffs since 1999.
“We’re 21 hours away from Game 4,” P.A. announcer Lawrence Tanter announced after the game.
Bryant ensured the Lakers would not be swept in the second round for a second consecutive season, scoring 14 points in the fourth quarter. He made only nine of 25 shots overall but all 18 free throws.
It was big-time payback after Bryant flubbed the final two minutes of Game 2, missing two shots and being in the midst of a pair of turnovers.
Durant finished with 31 points and James Harden had 21 for the Thunder, which lost for the first time in the playoffs after six consecutive victories, including a first-round sweep of Dallas.
Bynum struggled to make shots but not free throws, finishing with 15 points mostly on the strength of making 11 of 12 free throws. He made only two of 13 shots.
The Lakers converted their first 28 free-throw attempts. The Thunder wasn’t bad either, making 26 of 28 from the foul line.
Bryant heated up after re-entering the game early in the fourth quarter, making consecutive jumpers to give the Lakers a two-point lead as the momentum wildly vacillated.
His free throws with 3:25 left put the Lakers ahead 88-87, but then things took a turn toward the Thunder. Kendrick Perkins made two free throws and Russell Westbrook stole the ball from Bryant and went in for a dunk that gave Oklahoma City a 92-87 lead.
The Lakers had another run left in them.
Pau Gasol made two free throws and then Bryant converted a driving layup after World Peace blocked a shot by Perkins. Harden then fouled Bryant, whose free throws gave the Lakers a 93-92 lead with 1:09 remaining.
Durant gave the Thunder a 94-93 lead with a 17-foot jumper before Bryant made two more free throws to put the Lakers back on top, 95-94. Ibaka then missed his jumper, the Thunder fouled World Peace, and that was that.
The Lakers gave their supporters reason to roar in the early going, taking a 16-4 lead and forcing the Thunder to burn two timeouts in the game’s first six minutes. Lakers point guard Ramon Sessions’ six points over that span outnumbered the four he had scored in the first two games combined.
Sessions finished with 12 points.
A rivalry that had taken a testy turn thanks to World Peace’s elbow to the head of Harden late in the regular season heated up again.
The ugliness started when World Peace reached over a prone Westbrook in an attempt to extract the ball. The contact upset Westbrook, who flailed wildly at World Peace’s legs and then absorbed a knee from his Lakers counterpart.
Both players were issued technical fouls.