After winning an NBA championship in 2009, the Los Angeles Lakers were on a mission to defend their title the following year. Led by Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, they were the clear favorites and had a target on their back from the beginning of the season.
They were up to the challenge, winning 57 games, the most in the Western Conference. But that led them to a date in the first round with the young, up-and-coming, Oklahoma City Thunder.
It was a true meeting of the veteran champions against a fiery young team in their first playoff appearance. Two future MVPs, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, led the Thunder, while a rookie James Harden also played a vital role off the bench. They were viewed as the ultimate team on the rise.
But they were not intimidated in the least bit by the defending champions, giving the Lakers all they could handle in the first five games of the series. Heading into Game 6 in front of an absolutely raucous Oklahoma City crowd on April 30, 2010, the Thunder looked to force things to a deciding Game 7, but the Lakers knew they couldn’t let that happen.
The game was a tense defensive struggle throughout. While the Lakers shot the ball better than the Thunder, especially from 3-point range, the Thunder’s length and athleticism forced L.A. into 15 turnovers.
As things came down the stretch, a three-point play from Westbrook and a jumper from Durant gave the Thunder a three-point lead. Kobe would hit a jumper to bring the Lakers within a point with two minutes remaining before the defenses locked down again rendering each team scoreless until the final seconds.
Down one, with 18 seconds remaining, everyone knew that Kobe would be taking the last shot, but Westbrook guarded him well and his tough baseline fadeaway came up just short. But the young Thunder were too busy watching the ball and no one put a body on Gasol, who snuck in for the putback with just 0.5 seconds remaining to give the Lakers a 95-94 win and eliminate the Thunder in six games.
Gasol only had nine points on the night, but he put in the most important two and as usual found other ways to contribute as he grabbed 18 rebounds. Kobe had 32 points, but it was Gasol who came through clutch on this night.
It wouldn’t be the only time Gasol came up huge on this road to back-to-back championships, but on this night eight years ago, The Spaniard made sure the Lakers didn’t wind up on the wrong side of an upset before the journey ever began.
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