All that heartache about the one that got away in Oklahoma City, the proclamations that it was the franchise's worst loss in decades and the players who would decide if this was the end looked oblivious to the guillotine that hung so heavy overhead before Game 3. Andrew Bynum and Steve Blake chuckled at a movie that played inside the private players room, Ramon Sessions discussed his bizarre pregame diet (a Snickers bar) with reporters, and Kobe Bryant walked around like his stoic self with music blaring from his earphones.
This is the eclectic and resilient group that coach Mike Brown would describe later that night, his Lakers having survived 99-96 in the sort of gritty way that he has come to expect on a not-so-consistent basis. Amid all their flaws, complexities and dysfunction, these Lakers -- as they had shown in Game 7 against the Nuggets in the first round and did so again this time -- sure know how to avoid the disastrous finish.
"People asked me all the time (after Game 2), 'How do you recover from that?'" said Brown, whose team has a quick turnaround for Game 4 on Saturday night. "'Are the guys down?' Listen, I'm telling you. We've got a great group of guys, a veteran group of guys, who have been through this, who have been poised, and they stayed poised all night. We call it 'Next Play.' Move on to the next play. The next play for us was Game 3."
When Brown was hired as Phil Jackson's replacement last summer, this was the Next Play he put in place. He inherited a roster with three of the league's elite defenders in Bryant, Metta World Peace and Bynum, then shared the blueprint of slow-down, physical, ugly basketball. That the Lakers were able to execute the approach for the second straight game is enough to make you wonder if this series could still turn, especially considering the favor that was returned in the way they did it.
"If it's an up-and-down game, we don't have a shot," Bryant said. "We have to slow the game down, to play our pace and play our tempo. Whether (they play) back to back (games) for three nights in a row, it doesn't matter as long as we control our pace and our tempo."
No one outside of the Thunder's Big Three could find their offensive games (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden combined for 73 of 96 points), and Pau Gasol (12 points) and Bynum (15 points on 2-of-13 shooting) made up for their lackluster scoring nights by leading a defensive effort that clearly bothered the Thunder (39.8 percent shooting) once again.
Just as the Lakers' collapse in Game 2 left them heavy with regret, with Bryant so oddly ineffective and mistake-prone in those chaotic final minutes, the Thunder went to bed knowing they should have a 3-0 series lead and the history that comes with it (no team has ever recovered in that scenario). This one had a similar look late, when Westbrook stole the ball from an unsuspecting Bryant and dunked for a 92-87 lead with 2:54 left.
But it was Durant making the questionable moves this time, crossing over World Peace and driving through an open lane before making a curious pass to Serge Ibaka on the right baseline for a fadeaway jumper that misfired. Durant, who scored an efficient 31 points (12-of-23 shooting) but had five turnovers, grabbed the offensive rebound and was stripped by World Peace. An impressive game-long free throw contest continued, the Lakers staying alive by scoring 12 of their final 14 points from the charity stripe and showing incredible focus in converting an astounding 41 of 42 in all.
Responding once is one thing, though. And now, of course, we'll see if they can do it again in a far more challenging setting.
The Lakers of recent years have been champions of inconsistency, if not the league, and the turnaround time for Saturday's Game 4 nightcap would certainly seem to favor the young Thunder team. Bryant showed as much as he approached the news conference podium, moaning and groaning as he sat in his chair before offering a quip of, "These bones aren't as flexible as they used to be."
"It's going to take a mental commitment from our part in order to fight through the fatigue that we'll feel tomorrow," Gasol said. "It will be all will and desire and effort, just pushing ourselves through anything and everything that we might be feeling or that might be going on."
To fight off the end. Again.
"We'll just show up ready to work, ready to play," Bryant said. "Get your big-boy pants on and leave your diaper at home."