Kobe Bryant's perfection at the free-throw line was big for the desperate Lakers. His poise in the fourth quarter was even bigger, and it got Los Angeles back into its second-round series with Oklahoma City.
Bryant made 18 free throws without a miss and scored 14 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter, and the Lakers rallied late for a 99-96 victory in Game 3 on Friday night, cutting the Thunder's second-round series lead to 2-1.
Metta World Peace swiped the ball from Kevin Durant and hit two free throws with 12.9 seconds left for the third-seeded Lakers, who shook off the memory of their late collapse in Game 2. When Durant missed a potential tying 3-pointer before Andrew Bynum blocked Serge Ibaka's shot at the buzzer, the Lakers' frenzied crowd celebrated only their second victory in the last six playoff games.
Game 4 in the back-to-back set is Saturday night.
Durant scored 31 points before missing his last shot for Oklahoma City, which seemed poised to move to the brink of its second straight trip to the Western Conference finals with a five-point lead inside the final 3 minutes. Instead, the Thunder lost for the first time in the postseason, getting outscored 12-4 down the stretch.
After blowing a seven-point lead in the final 2 minutes of Game 2, Los Angeles finished Game 3 on a 6-2 run in the final 33 seconds, all on free throws. The Lakers went 41 for 42 from the line, including 26 for 27 in the second half.
"You have to knock those freebies down," Lakers coach Mike Brown said. "You're not going to get any better look in a game than a free throw. That's how good (the Thunder) are."
The Lakers said the 41-of-42 performance at the line was the second-best in NBA playoff history for teams with more than 30 attempts. Only Dallas' 49-for-50 effort against San Antonio on May 19, 2003, was better.
Russell Westbrook and James Harden scored 21 points apiece for the Thunder, who couldn't match the Lakers' late-game execution after soundly out-executing the Lakers in Game 2.
"We put them on the line," Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. "We can't do that. Down the stretch, you have to defend them without fouling and rebound the basketball. Unfortunately, we came up short."
Bynum had 15 points and 11 rebounds for the Lakers, who got 12 points apiece from Pau Gasol, Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake. Gasol also had 11 rebounds and six assists for the Lakers, who didn't appear worried while flirting with an 0-3 deficit, which has never been overcome in NBA history.
"We've got a great, veteran group of guys who have been through all this," Brown said. "They stepped up to the plate and gave us a chance to win down the stretch."
Oklahoma City's bench celebrated a 92-87 lead on Westbrook's breakaway dunk with 2:55 to play, but the Lakers trimmed away with Gasol's free throws, Bryant's layup and several possessions of tenacious defense. Bryant's free throws put the Lakers ahead with 1:09 to play.
Durant immediately hit a go-ahead jumper with a hand squarely in his face, but Bryant added two more free throws — his 15th and 16th — to put Los Angeles ahead 95-94. The Thunder finished 26 of 28 from the line, but the Lakers went 17 for 18 in the fourth quarter alone.
The game was the first of four second-round NBA playoff games in just over 48 hours at Staples Center, also the site of the NHL's Western Conference finals between and Kings and Phoenix on Thursday and Sunday. The top-seeded San Antonio Spurs will face the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday in an afternoon game before the Thunder and Lakers play Game 4.
Thanks to the NBA's shortened schedule, the Lakers are playing their first back-to-back playoff games since May 22-23, 1999, in the second round against San Antonio during another season shortened by labor strife.
Staples Center was bubbling with energy even before tipoff, with thousands of Lakers fans actually deigning to wear the gold giveaway T-shirts that are usually tucked under chairs or slung over shoulders.
The Lakers responded to the buzz, jumping to a 16-6 lead while Oklahoma City missed its first five shots and used two timeouts. The Lakers led by 12 points in the first quarter, but Oklahoma City erased it quickly in the second quarter when Bryant left the game.
Harden was booed the first time he touched the ball in his first game at Staples since World Peace gave him a concussion with a vicious elbow in the Lakers' penultimate regular-season games.
Tempers flared in the second quarter when Westbrook furiously attempted to prevent World Peace from tying him up for a jump ball. World Peace's knee came down on Westbrook's leg during a brief skirmish including Jordan Hill, and both Westbrook and World Peace received technical fouls.
Oklahoma City surged in front during the third quarter, but the Lakers kept it close despite a rough quarter from Bryant. Kendrick Perkins' interior defense largely prevented Bynum from scoring in the low post, but the Thunder also struggled for offensive consistency.
The Lakers stayed in Game 3 with incredible free-throw shooting, making their first 28 foul shots before Bynum missed with 9:15 to play.
NOTES: Before the game, Gasol received the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for his charity work as a UNICEF ambassador. World Peace won the award last season. ... Perkins had six points in 30 minutes, but coach Scott Brooks put no limit on his minutes in the back-to-back games despite the veteran's sore hip. ... NBA Commissioner David Stern, Denzel Washington, Snoop Dogg, The Game, Ice Cube, Redskins QB Robert Griffin III and the Los Angeles Kings' Mike Richards, Drew Doughty and Jarret Stoll and attended the game.