The Lakers fell behind by 18 in the second half, but chipped away at the deficit early in the fourth quarter, finally erupting with an 11-0 run — capped by a Kobe Bryant three-pointer — to take an 88-87 lead with 1:13 to play.
After Russell Westbrook hit two free throws, Bryant answered with another triple to give the Lakers a two-point lead, but Westbrook sank another pair of freebies to knot the game at 91. Bryant missed on the other end, before Durant’s game-winning three-point attempt clanged off the front of the rim.
In overtime, the Lakers scored the first four points to take a 95-91 lead, however, Oklahoma City would not go away, tying the score at 97 on a Westbrook layup with 1:39 to play in the extra session. Westbrook had a chance to win the game, taking a three-pointer from almost the same spot as Durant’s at the end of regulation — but it was off the mark, and the game went to double overtime.
Tied at 104 with less than a minute to play in the second bonus round, Bryant gave the Lakers the lead for good with 52 seconds to play, and L.A. iced the game at the free-throw line, securing a 114-106 victory.
On a very down note, the Lakers’ win — which enabled them to stay ahead of their co-tenants, the Clippers, in the race for the Pacific Division title — was marred late in the first half by an elbow thrown by Metta World Peace.
After World Peace drove in for a dunk late in the first half, cutting the Thunder’s lead to 48-47 (it had been as high as 11 earlier in the quarter), he turned back up court and thumped his chest in celebration. With Thunder supersub James Harden right next to him, World Peace wound up and swung his left elbow, making clean contact with Harden’s face. Harden fell to the floor and World Peace was assessed with a Flagrant 2 Foul, which warrants an automatic ejection and possible suspension.
It is all but certain that World Peace will be suspended — the only question is, for how long? With only one regular-season game remaining for the Lakers, it is a lock that he will miss playoff contests, quite possibly an entire series.
After the game, World Peace addressed the media, saying, “I got real emotional and excited, and it was unfortunate that James had to get hit with the unintentional elbow. I hope he’s OK. Oklahoma, they’re playing for a championship this year. I apologize to the Thunder and James Harden. It was just unfortunate.”
It goes beyond unfortunate for the Thunder. Harden was diagnosed with a concussion and, according to the league’s newly instituted concussion policy, must pass rigorous tests before he returns.
For Oklahoma City, the injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. Harden, who is likely to win the Sixth Man of the Year Award, is an extremely valuable reserve for the Thunder. He is the offensive linchpin of the team’s second unit, averaging 16.9 points per game this season, and shooting 48.9% from the field and 39.0% from three. He also spreads the wealth on offense, averaging 3.7 assists in 31.7 minutes.
If Harden is slow to recover from the concussion and/or does not play at the same level as he did prior to the injury, the scoring burden off the bench likely falls to Derek Fisher and Daequan Cook, who are both averaging just a shade over five points per game this season. Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed have limited offensive games, so the bench’s offensive firepower would be severely compromised.
Not only does Harden’s possible dip in play hurt the bench, but it also affects the starters. If Westbrook (3-for-22, 0-for-8 from three) and/or Durant (11-for-34) struggle like they did today, there’s no strong Plan B. Serge Ibaka scored 18 points today — but that was twice his season average. Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha are also limited offensively, so the Thunder’s hopes ride on the shoulders of Durant, Westbrook, and Harden.
In addition to losing Harden to injury, the Thunder also saw their hopes of securing the #1 seed in the Western Conference take a hit, as San Antonio topped Cleveland, 114-98, to move 1 1/2 games ahead of Oklahoma City. The Spurs have three games to play, while the Thunder have just two remaining contests in the regular season.
The Thunder would surely sacrifice the top seed if it meant getting a healthy Harden back. They are likely to face Denver or Dallas — both of whom they played in last year’s postseason — in the first round, with a matchup against the Lakers in the conference semifinals.
Oklahoma City may not need Harden to knock off the not-too-far-above-.500 Nuggets or Mavericks, but it will be tough to beat the Lakers without the most valuable bench player in the game.