Sorry Phoenix, It ORNG Happening Here
The Los Angeles Lakers used a stifling and suffocating defense to lead them to a 111-103 victory over the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center and a 4-2 Western Conference Finals title. Kobe Bryant (37 points on 12-25, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals) led the way in the win, scoring on an assortment of vintage Kobe shots to close out the Suns after they had closed to within 3-points in the final minutes of the 4th quarter. With defenders right in his jersey with hands in his face, Kobe was simply said, Kobe. In his post-game comments, Alvin Gentry exclaimed, “Was that Michael or Kobe?” in reference to the retired Air Jordan. In the last two minutes of the game, Kobe pumped in 9-points. His first bucket in that span was a fade-to-the-right jumper over the double-team of Grant Hill and Channing Frye. Steve Nash was forced into a turnover leading to a steal by Kobe who was fouled attacking the basket on the ensuing fast break. His pair of free throws gave the Lakers a 7-point cushion with 1:43 to play. With the Suns trailing 105-100 after an Amar’e Stoudemire jump hook, Kobe had Hill draped all over him with the shot clock running down. Kobe feigned left and nudged right, elevating just high enough to evade Hill’s block attempt as he let loose with a long, 23-foot jumper that found nothing but net. As a bemused Gentry could only smile after the shot went down, Kobe gave Gentry a nod of the head and a light tap on the rear as he headed to the Lakers bench with both arms extended, gliding back on wings as if high atop the clouds.
Ron Artest, (25 points on 10-16, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals) the hero of Game 5 with his incredible and improbable put-back with .08 seconds left for the win, carried the Lakers early with an accurate and aggressive offensive onslaught. Artest connected on 4-7 3-point attempts as the Suns dared him to shoot. And shoot he did, amassing a game leading 17-points in the first half. Ron-Ron opened his scoring with a steal off a careless Robin Lopez pass, racing the distance down the court for the throw-down. But Phoenix responded on the very next play with Grant Hill (6 points on 2-7, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 blocked shot) converting the unusual 4-point play after getting fouled by Andrew Bynum behind the arc. Bynum, (10 points on 3-5, 6 rebounds, 2 blocked shots in 20-minutes) was a force early, helping to get both Lopez and Channing Frye (12 points on 5-7, 13 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 blocked shot) into early foul trouble. And with Artest taking care of business from the outside, the Lakers raced to a 37-34 lead at the conclusion of one. Artest paced the Lakers with 12-points while Kobe provided 10-points. The Lakers shot 13-21 for 62% from the field.
Second quarter play ensued with both coaches going to their benches. Sasha Vujacic (5 points on 2-3, 1 rebound in 11-minutes) dropped a 3-bomb but was matched at the other end by Jared Dudley (3 points on 1-3, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 2 blocked shots in 26-minutes). As the second unit tried to establish themselves, both teams began having trouble controlling the tempo as well as the ball. The Lakers could not seem to run their offense without coughing up the ball on numerous possessions. Lamar Odom (6 points on 3-12, 12 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal) scored on a baseline jam off a fabulous feed from Jordan Farmar (8 points on 3-4, 2 rebounds, 5 assists in 17-minutes) for a 42-39 advantage. Goran Dragic (12 points on 5-9, 2 rebounds, 2 assists in 18-minutes) started getting untracked, hitting consecutive baskets to give the Suns the brief 43-42 lead. But the Lakers went on a 12-2 run highlighted by a Farmar trey and another long distance bomb from Artest for a 54-45 lead. Amar’e Stoudemire (27 points on 7-20, 4 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 blocked shots) converted a 17-footer, only his second field goal of the night as the Lakers swarmed him with multiple defenders each time he got the ball down deep. The Lakers would continue their good shooting and end the first half comfortably ahead, 65-53. Kobe’s ended the first half with a deep, deep, 3-ball from almost 8-feet behind the arc. And as the crowd clad in orange shook their heads in disbelief, the Lakers trotted confidently off the floor and headed to their locker room.
The Lakers started where they left off, as Derek Fisher (11 points on 4-9, 2 rebounds, 3 assists) drilled a 22-footer to open the third quarter of play. Steve Nash (21 points on 8-11, 9 assists, 5 rebounds) scored on a pair of bookend jumpers, but Kobe splashed another deep 3-pointer for the 72-57 lead. The two teams would trade baskets as each looked to gain the decided momentum of the game. Nash sank a high-arcing jumper over the extended fingertips of Bynum, and then Stoudemire found himself open for the thunderous jam which brought them to within 74-63 at the 6:27 mark of the period. Amar’e got Bynum to commit his 4th foul, sending him to the bench as he drained the pair of free throws. An 11-2 run capped by an unusual 6-foot hook shot by Artest for the 85-67 lead had the US Airways crowd moaning in disbelief. Phoenix called time-out again as Gentry pleaded for his team to remain focused and not to lose hope. But hope was quickly dwindling away as Artest’s scoring barrage had caught everyone off guard. Kobe completed the 3rd period with a trio of jumpers to hand the Lakers an 91-74 lead heading into the final stanza.
The tide would quickly turn at the start of the 4th period. Dragic would connect on a jumper, then appear to get into the ear of Sasha and say something. Sasha reacted by raising both of his arms, catching him just below the chin as Dragic went tumbling to the floor in a huge Hollywood heap. Dragic lay there for several minutes as teammates rushed to his aid while the referees assessed Vujacic a Flagrant 1 foul. Dragic recovered in time to drain the two free throws, then promptly drove down the middle of the lane for a lay-up and a most unusual 6-point play. The Suns erupted from that point on, perhaps fired-up by the poor acting job of Dragic. Nonetheless, Phil Jackson was forced to insert Kobe back into the game earlier than expected as the Suns continued to whittle away at the lead. Stoudemire found himself and his shot in the 4th, scoring on an assortment of post moves and jams. His layup with 6:09 remaining brought the Suns to within 95-90. Kobe’s 21-footer with the shot clock running down would extend the lead up to 97-90 but Leandro Barbosa (7 points on 3-9, 2 assists in 19-minutes) would score on a reverse layup trimming the lead back down to five. Fish hit a difficult baseline jumper but Pau Gasol (9 points on 2-9, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 blocked shot) fouled Amar’e for another pair of free throws, again bringing the Suns to within 99-94.
After another wasted trip down the court that saw both Gasol and Odom suffer through one of their worst shooting performances in the series, Nash would leave Fisher in his dust off the pick-and-roll for a layup cutting the lead down to 99-96 with 2:18 to play. But that would be as close as the Suns would get as Kobe went into Mamba-mode and closed Phoenix out with his own eclipse. That the Lakers had managed to win despite the poor outings by both Gasol and Odom was highly unusual. But even more so was the support provided by Artest. His offense sparked the Lakers while the bench did their part to hold down the fort in the first three quarters. Sasha’s burgeoning biceps should not have been called for a Flagrant 1 foul, but Dragic sold it so well that even Vlade Divac would have been proud. The Lakers move on to the NBA Finals against a familiar foe in the Boston Celtics. Game 1 starts on Thursday at 6pm for what many expect to be an all-out war. It doesn’t get any better than this.