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IT WAS THE DEFINING MOMENT OF A SERIES THAT HAD SOMEHOW begun to slip away from the reigning NBA champions. Kobe Bryant, his team down by one point with less than 10 seconds left in Game 6 of its first-round matchup against Oklahoma City, sized up the Thunder's defense. Everybody in the building—hell, in the world—knew that Bryant was going to take the final shot. After all, he had hit six game-winners during the regular season.
The Thunder players were transfixed as the Lakers star reached his sweet spot on the right baseline, lifted, launched...and missed. But that brief hesitation by the defense allowed Pau Gasol to drift in from the left, grab Bryant's errant shot and put it back for what would be the series-clinching basket.
Still, the game—and the series—hadn't been a satisfactory one. "We didn't play consistent," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said after the 95-94 win. "It was a lack of focus."
His team's inconsistency allowed the upstart Thunder, led by 21-year-old playoff rookies Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, to nearly push L.A. to the brink of elimination.
The Lakers appeared to have the upper hand when the series began at the Staples Center, winning 87-79. Two nights later Bryant gave Los Angeles a 2-0 series lead, scoring 15 of his 39 points in the fourth quarter and rebuffing critics who questioned his lackluster 21-point performance (on 6-of-19 shooting) in Game 1. "After 13 years you'd think they'd know better," Bryant said.
But the Lakers didn't seem prepared for the raucous scene that awaited them on the road. On a night when Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks received the coach of the year award, and with virtually every spectator in Thunder blue, Durant had 29 points and 19 rebounds to lead the home team to a 101-96 victory in Game 3.
Durant and his teammates continued to feed off the home crowd's energy in Game 4, while the Lakers appeared sluggish. Bryant took only 10 shots and scored 12 points as Oklahoma City soundly defeated L.A. 110-89.
When the series shifted back to Los Angeles, so did the momentum. In Game 5 the Lakers scored the first 10 points and led by as many as 32, winning handily, 111-87, and setting the scene for the nail-biter back in Oklahoma City.
By the time Gasol's putback dropped in Game 6, L.A. had shown itself to be vulnerable at times but just as capable of closing out a series as it was in 2009. "Everyone expected us to be this greatest team since sliced bread, but we aren't playing like that," Ron Artest said after the series. "We actually have to work."