LOS ANGELES — You can do away with every encouraging sign that was seen Sunday, and forget about how educational this experience is supposed to be for future years.
Suddenly, the Oklahoma City Thunder appears capable of actually winning this thing.
Sure, the Thunder now trails 2-0 in this first-round series against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers following Tuesday night’s 95-92 thrilling defeat inside Staples Center.
But this best-of-seven showdown is shifting to Oklahoma City, where 18,000-plus will try to spur on their beloved boys to two victories and a chance to send it back to L.A. knotted at two games apiece.
And if that scenario plays out, the Thunder, after Tuesday, should have supreme confidence that it can return to the land of La La and land a victory.
Jeff Green missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have sent the game into overtime. His miss followed Kevin Durant’s missed 3-pointer that would have given the Thunder a one-point lead with just more than seven seconds to play.
It was a shocking turn of events for a Thunder team that seemingly no one had picked to win this series, and certainly not steal one on L.A.’s home court.
“We always had that confidence that we could come in here and win the game and play with these guys,” Durant said. “A lot of people didn’t even think we could play with these guys.”
Oklahoma City put up plenty of fight against the Lakers, overcoming adversity and a much rowdier sellout crowd of 18,997 inside Staples Center.
Three consecutive errors, though, doomed the Thunder in the final 2 1/2 minutes, a trio of blunders that might have given credence to any claim that Oklahoma City’s inexperience is indeed an issue that is too tall for the Thunder to overcome.
The first came with the game tied at 88-88. Serge Ibaka goal-tended a shot by Russell Westbrook and negated a jumper that appeared to be going in. Lakers All-Star guard Kobe Bryant responded with a pull-up jumper to give L.A. a two-point lead.
Durant was then called for an offensive foul on the next possession. Bryant swished two foul shots at the other end to push the margin to 92-88 with 1:31 to play. And finally, Durant turned the ball over on a drive to the basket, leading to Shannon Brown hitting one of two free throws to give the Lakers a 93-88 lead with 1:18 remaining.
“A couple of things went our way down the stretch that made the difference in that ballgame,” said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. “We were down two points in the last five minutes and we were able to pull it out.”
If you’re scoring at home, that’s twice now that Jackson has watched his team eke out a victory. The Thunder trailed by 17 in Game 1 and battled to within six in the closing minutes Sunday before losing by eight. On Tuesday, the Thunder never trailed by more than six in the second half.
“They have the hunger to try to prove themselves and get to the level where we are,” Bryant said.
You could make the case that Oklahoma City outplayed L.A. in five of the eight quarters inside Staples Center on Sunday and Tuesday. The Lakers won both first quarters and on Tuesday used a 28-22 third quarter to turn a 47-45 halftime deficit into a four-point lead going into the final period.
Now, the Thunder’s task is to find a way to hurdle its fourth-quarter hump and close out the Lakers. If Oklahoma City duplicates its effort from these first two games, the Thunder will give itself an opportunity to make the third time the charm.
The Thunder maintained its pesky defense from Game 1 and held the Lakers to 37.5 percent shooting. Only two Lakers players scored in double digits. Problem was, those two players, Bryant and Pau Gasol, combined for 64 points.
“That was about as well as we can play, and (we) just came up a little short,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “Overall, I was very happy with the way we played.”
What stood out most was the Thunder’s resiliency.
The most significant showing came from Durant, who made the proper adjustments against bulldog defender Ron Artest and delivered the type of performance the Thunder needs to make this a series. The Thunder’s star and NBA’s leading scorer shook off his dreadful playoff debut and netted a team-high 32 points on 12-of-26 shooting.
Durant’s eight turnovers, however, were problematic. And he couldn’t outshine Bryant’s game-high 39 points, 15 of them coming in a fourth quarter that temporarily answered the questions about Bryant’s health.
“What did Mark Twain say?” Jackson asked. “Rumors of my demise are overrated.”
Coach Scott Brooks made the right adjustments as well, giving Ibaka more playing time against Lakers duo Andrew Bynum and Gasol. With the more athletic Ibaka in the mix, the payoff was a franchise playoff record 17 blocked shots, including seven by Ibaka.
The Thunder also overcame a foul-plagued night by Russell Westbrook. The point guard, who was the Thunder’s lone offensive weapon in Game 1, was whistled for his second foul with 5:35 remaining in the first quarter and never had a chance to put his stamp on the game early. After returning 24 seconds into the second quarter, Westbrook was called for his third foul with 6:06 remaining in the first half and the Thunder trailing 37-28.
Still, Westbrook finished with 19 points, six rebounds and three assists in 29 minutes. Green, however, shot just 2-for-11 from the field and had 12 points. Nenad Krstic, who scored six of his 10 points in the third quarter, was the only other player to finish in double figure scoring, as the Thunder shot 39 percent from the field and 5-for-19 (26.3 percent) from behind the 3-point line.
“The Lakers did what they’re supposed to do,” Brooks said. “They protected their home court.”
And now it’s the Thunder’s turn to show it can do the same.