Where .08 Happens
All is well back in Lakerland, as Ron Artest’s improbable put-back with under a second left in regulation gave the Los Angeles Lakers a 103-101 win over the Phoenix Suns at Staples Center to take a 3-2 stranglehold in the best-of-seven Western Conference Finals. Artest, (4 points on 2-9, 5 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists, 1 blocked shot) was the likely goat after missing an open jumper just above the free throw line with the Lakers holding a 101-98 edge. But that wasn’t the worst part of it as Gasol secured the offensive rebound and kicked the ball back out to Artest with :58 left in the game. Instead of holding the ball and killing time off of the 24-second shot clock, Artest launched a 3-pointer that missed, giving the Suns an opportunity to tie the score. First, Nash missed his trey attempt but managed to grab the rebound and kicked it out to a wide open J-Rich. His 3-pointer rattled in-and-out but Channing Frye got ahold of the miss and found Richardson again as he stepped into a 27-footer that banked in, knotting the score at 101-101 with 3.5 seconds left. The Phoenix bench erupted as the thought of stealing one on the Lakers home court floated through their minds and all 17,997 in attendance. LO took the ball out-of-bounds and found a slashing Kobe coming to meet the pass. He turned and jumped up to launch a 3-pointer but Grant Hill had slid over causing Bryant to double-pump. The ball fell way short of the mark as Artest sprinted from one baseline to the other, retrieved the errant shot, and flipped it in off the backboard as time expired. Artest ran and leapt into Kobe’s arm as the rest of the team dog-piled onto him in celebration.
Game 6 returns to the desert where the Lakers had not had much success in their prior two outings. But the Lakers look to close out the pesky Suns on Saturday for a return trip to the NBA Finals. Prior to the Lakers even taking the floor, Phil Jackson told the team, “If you can’t meet this challenge, why go to the Finals?” The message appears to have gotten through to them loud and clear as the Lakers defense was much improved in tonight’s contest. But the Suns remained resilient and came back time after time, even after the Lakers had established an 18-point lead in the 3rd quarter. Steve Nash (29 points on 12-20, 11 assists, 3 rebounds) matched Kobe Bryant (30 points on 12-27, 11 rebounds, 9 assists, 4 blocked shots) shot for shot down the stretch as the two teams fought for the lead. Pau Gasol (21 points on 7-14, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 blocked shot) bounced back from his subpar Game 4 performance as did Lamar Odom (17 points on 7-11, 13 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal). But it was Derek Fisher (22 points on 7-12, 4 assists, 1 rebound, 1 steal) that carried the team early as Kobe was saddled with two quick fouls in the opening minutes.
Phoenix surprised the Lakers by going with a straight man-to-man defense to start the contest. And while the Lakers were slow to acclimate themselves, the Suns were active on both ends of the floor. Amar’e Stoudemire (19 points on 7-12, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, 3 blocked shots) rejected back-to-back attempts by Gasol as the Suns were off and running to a quick 5-0 lead. As Kobe headed to the bench in disgust after picking up his second foul just 9:25 into the game, the Suns continued to get great looks and extended their lead to 15-8 forcing the Lakers to call time out. The Lakers finally settled down and began chipping away at the Suns lead. Fisher scored 11 of the next 13 Laker points to give them their first lead at 20-19. LO and Gasol finished out the period with score for a 24-21 lead at the end of one.
With the bench starting the 2nd quarter, the defensive intensity picked up as well. Jordan Farmar (0 points on 0-2, 4 assists, 2 rebounds, 2 steals) started harassing Goran Dragic (3 points on 1-5, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 turnovers) forcing the Slovenian into coughing up the ball. Sasha Vujacic (5 points on 2-4 in 12-minutes) dropped a 17-footer for the 30-25 advantage as the Suns began to unravel. After a pair of Odom free throws, Kobe drained three consecutive 3-pointers for the 41-25 lead. Staples Center was up on their feet as thoughts of a blowout were quickly materializing. But as would be the case for the rest of the evening, the Suns began battling back behind Nash, Stoudemire and Grant Hill (10 points on 3-7, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 3 blocked shots). Phoenix used a 20-12 run to cut the deficit to 53-45 going into halftime. Kobe led the Lakers with 15-points, followed by Fish with 13 and Odom with 12. Steve Nash also recorded 15-points while Stoudemire added 11 and Hill recorded all 10 of his points in the first half.
The two teams traded baskets to start the 3rd period, but it was apparent early that the Lakers were the aggressors on defense. Phoenix was coughing the ball up at a high rate as the Lakers swarming D prevented them from getting good looks at the basket. With the score 59-51, the Lakers ran off 8-straight points capped by Artest’s first basket of the night for a 67-51 lead. Channing Frye (14 points on 4-10, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 blocked shot) drained a 3-pointer but Kobe answered with a 9-footer in the post. After a score by Jason Richardson (12 points on 5-12, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 blocked shot) the Lakers scored the next 5 unanswered points for a commanding 74-56 lead with 3:44 left in the period. The Suns used a 16-4 run to close out the quarter to close to within 78-72. Jared Dudley (10 points on 3-5, 4 rebounds, 1 assist) recorded a 4-point play in that span after getting fouled by Gasol on his 3-pointer. And just like that, instead of heading to the 4th quarter with a 20-point lead, the Lakers were left shaking their heads as the Suns responded again, this time via the long ball.
An LO layup followed by another trey by Kobe extended the lead back to 83-72 at the start of the final period. But the Suns scored the next 5-points to trim the lead back down to half a dozen points. Dragic’s second turnover led to Farmar feeding Sasha for a wide open 3-pointer and a 86-77 lead. But Dragic atoned for his error by nailing a 3-pointer of his own. Kobe scored again but Frye answered with another bomb from beyond the arc that made it 88-83. Gasol would score on a pretty feed from Kobe to keep the Suns at arms distance with 6:16 left in the contest. An 11-5 run by the Suns put them back into the game powered behind Stoudemire and Nash. Fisher’s jumper made it 97-94 with 2:34 remaining. Frye would miss a 3-pointer coming out of the Suns time out and Gasol was fouled at the other end and drained a pair of free throws and a seemingly comfortable 99-94 lead. But Nash answered quickly, dancing around Gasol off the switch for the pull-up at the top of the key. Lamar got free underneath for an easy score but again Nash found himself being guarded by Gasol, and again he drained a 17-footer that found nothing but the bottom of the net. With 1:21 on the clock and the score showing a slim 101-98 Lakers lead. Artest missed from just above the free throw line as Gasol snared the offensive rebound which led to Artest firing his ill-advised 3-pointer prior to his last second heroics.