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Can Kobe Bryant And The LA Lakers Rise To Kevin Durant's Challenge?

Hadarii JonesSenior Writer IApril 23, 2010

OKLAHOMA CITY - APRIL 22: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks to get past Ron Artest #37 and Kobe Bryant #24 both of the Los Angeles Lakers during Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2010 NBA Playoffs on April 22, 2010 at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Kobe Bryant had his moments in Thursday night's Game Three loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, especially in the second quarter where he threatened to take control of the game, but Kevin Durant made the bigger statement on this night.

Durant never issued a verbal challenge to Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers, but Durant's 29 points and 19 rebounds were worth more than any words could express, and likely saved the Thunder from an insurmountable three-game deficit.

Durant had plenty of help, as Russell Westbrook scored 27 points and James Harden added 18, and the Lakers were never able to contain the Thunder's perimeter trio.

Even on a night where all five Lakers' starters reached double figures, the Thunder refused to go away and with the outcome hanging in the balance, Oklahoma City was the team who seized control of the game.

One challenge Durant did take was defending Bryant in the fourth quarter and Durant's height visibly bothered Bryant and forced him into a multitude of questionable shots at the end of the game.

It was a far different scene from two days earlier, where Bryant's 15-point fourth quarter proved to be the deciding factor in the Lakers' narrow three-point escape.

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Instead, the normal fourth quarter brilliance of Bryant was muted on this night by exceptional defense from Durant, and the ability of his teammates to shake off their fears and play with purpose and focus.

There were some obvious discrepancies in the game, such as the Thunder's two to one advantage from the charity stripe, and the strange fact that Bryant was unable to find his way to the free throw line a single time.

But this loss can't be chalked up to officiating because the Lakers held the lead the majority of the game despite few trips to the free throw line, and it was only after Los Angeles abandoned the post game that the Thunder made their charge.

The paint area is the biggest advantage the Lakers hold over the Thunder, and for some mysterious reason Los Angeles stopped going to Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol just as the team began to stretch their lead.

It seemed the Lakers may have been lulled to sleep by Bryant's barrage of three-pointers in the second quarter or by Derek Fisher finally finding the distance and touch on his own shot.

Ultimately, the game boiled down to what Durant and the Thunder were able to do, and not what the Lakers failed to do, because Los Angeles has lived and prospered under these circumstances in the past.

The Lakers are the defending champions and have more playoff experience than any team in this year's postseason, but the Thunder were the team who were more composed and focused when it mattered the most.

And Durant finally began to live up to the potential his regular season suggested, and despite an 8-24 shooting performance, Durant managed to go 12-13 from the free throw line.

This win doesn't change the perception of the series for the Thunder, because it is still widely assumed the Lakers will prevail, but it did give the young team hope going forward.

The chance that the Thunder could win Game Four and head back to Los Angeles with the series tied is very real, so the question shifts to, how do the defending champions respond?

Bryant will be looking for Durant to defend him again in Game Four, so the element of surprise will cease to be a factor, and it would probably be in the Thunder's best interest if they didn't do it anyway.

Bryant, like his coach Phil Jackson, is a master at making adjustments in the postseason, and you had better believe he would love nothing more than to see Durant across from him when he has the ball.

Height is the only advantage Durant has over Bryant as a defender, and Bryant would likely get Durant into foul trouble if Thunder coach Scott Brooks decide to travel that path again.

But those musings are for later, because in this game it was the Thunder who made the right adjustments, hit the big shots, and made a living off the free throw line when the outcome was in doubt.

They now have the confidence of knowing they can compete with and beat the Lakers in a postseason setting, but can Los Angeles regain their focus and shatter that confidence in their next meeting? The world awaits the answer.

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