Lakers/Suns Game 5 Recap
The putback that saved a season.
by Graham Flashner
The Lakers knew what they were getting when they acquired Ron Artest. A mercurial, unpredictable, mad genius of a baller, as capable of bricking an ill-advised three as he was making a critical steal. A strange-thinking enigma who makes decisions that can render diagrammed plays useless, and send coaches in to a helpless rage.
Thursday night, in one unforgettable final minute of the fourth quarter, the Lakers saw the mad, mad world of Artest in all its head-scratching glory. First, there were the Two Dumb Shots, the second with 21 seconds left on the shot clock, the Lakers clinging to a three-point lead, and a sellout crowd screaming “NOOO!”, which almost wrecked the season.
Then came The Putback that may have saved the season, a 103-101 victory that sent the Lakers on a giddy flight to Phoenix for a possible close-out game on Saturday, their ninth straight win in a Game 5.
It was all in a day’s work for Ron Ron, who was so blasé about his game-winning stunner, he ran off the court and in to the locker room, while Lakers officials scrambled to bring him back for the TV interviews.
“Usually after a game, I like to move on,” Artest said.
Love him or hate him, you can’t say Artest has been anything but true to his character.
Just like Bryant was true to his character in the final 3.5 seconds, trying to be the hero with a forced shot in to a double team, when he could’ve laid the ball off to a wide-open Derek Fisher in the corner.
Perhaps it’s only fitting that, after a regular season in which Bryant bailed out the Lakers with a half-dozen game-winning shots, they’ve now bailed him out twice in the post-season, the first being Pau Gasol’s tap-in to win Game 6 against the Thunder.
It was a game that the Lakers could not put away and the Suns refused to quit on. Before the game, Suns coach Alvin Gentry, mindful of the 24-point pasting the Lakers had laid on the Thunder in Game 5, said he hoped his team could survive the expected early Lakers onslaught.
Once the game started, it was the Lakers who had reason to worry. Bryant picked up two quick fouls in the first three minutes, the Suns shot out to a 17-10 lead, and it seemed like all the Lakers worries of Game 4 – turnovers, defensive lapses, and bad rebounding – had resurfaced. They missed 16 of their first 20 shots.
Then Fish, the old pro, came to the rescue, almost single-handedly erasing the deficit with an 11-point burst, his finest quarter of the Playoffs. His fast-break layup gave the L.A. its first lead at 20-19, and with the crowd ignited, the Lakers regained their composure, tightened up the D, and remembered their vertical advantage. They beat the smaller Suns off the glass, and neutralized the zone defense that had befuddled them in Phoenix by spreading the court, moving the ball side-to-side, and stretching the defense.
When Bryant caught fire in the second quarter and nailed back-to-back-to-back threes, the Lakers led 41-25, the knockout blow seemed imminent.
But it never came. The veteran Suns, more savvy and with more quick-strike weapons than the Thunder, hung around. The vaunted bench, which had humiliated the Lakers bench in Game 4 to the tune of 54-20, but which scored a measly bucket in the first half of Game 5, came to life in the third quarter, thanks to Channing Frye and Jaret Dudley, who combined for 14 points. After a spectacular circus three-ball by Dudley, the Lakers lead, once 18, was in single digits.
The fourth quarter was Steve Nash time. Nash (29 points, 11 assists) kept finding himself in screen-and-roll isolations against Gasol, and he made Gasol look silly, scoring 9 of his 29 in the final four minutes. He may have gotten away with a travel or two, but Nash was in the zone down the stretch. There was the playground-style leaner that became a three-point play, and the pass he zipped behind Lamar Odom’s back to Amar’e Stoudemire that made it a 1-point game, 95-94.
The Lakers kept answering, but the Suns kept counterpunching, and with 1:01 to go and the Lakers up three, Artest took an awkward foul-line jumper that clanked off the rim. Gasol snatched the rebound, and got the ball out quickly. Unfortunately, the guy he found was Artest, who wasted no time reloading, oblivious to the shot clock and the need to protect a lead.
The entire arena gasped as one, imploring Artest not to shoot. They could’ve thrown foam fingers at him and it wouldn’t have mattered.
All season long, Artest struggled to find his way in the triangle offense. There were nights when he looked completely lost. He wasn’t brought in to score, but still, this was a guy who averaged 16 points a game in Houston, and who reminded Craig Sager on TNT that he once made 40 percent of his threes. Artest kept shooting the three all through the anxious months of March and April, when the Lakers lost several close games and teams doubled up on Kobe, taking their chances with Artest.
It was almost as if this was Artest’s chance to make up for the entire regular season.
“There’s a new system for me … I’m trying to somehow, you know, make it work for the team,” said Artest. “So that’s kind of why I took that shot. It’s not always a good shot, but nobody’s perfect. We were up three. I was hoping to go up six.”
The shot wasn’t close. The Suns called timeout, and a visibly upset Phil Jackson scolded Artest on the bench, while Artest looked away.
“He was trying not to listen to me, very hard,” Jackson said later.
At that point, Jackson considered removing Artest, who was 1-8 from the field. “I don’t know why I left him in the game,” he said. “I actually questioned it myself when I put him out there on the floor.”
Two possessions later, after a missed dunk by Gasol in traffic, the Suns finally caught up. It took three shots, but with the Lakers unable to box out, Jason Richardson caught a pass in rhythm from Frye and buried an improbable three-pointer off the glass, tying the score.
Everybody knew the ball was going to wind up in Bryant’s hands, but for once, Bryant’s judgment failed him. When he caught the inbounds from Odom, he was immediately swarmed by Grant Hill and Nash. As Bryant went up in the air, if he looked to his right, he would’ve seen Fish a foot away.
This could’ve been Bryant’s MJ-to-Jim Paxson moment. He could’ve laid the ball off to Fish, who’d already scored 22 points on 7-12 shooting. Maybe he didn’t see Fish until it was too late. Or maybe he couldn’t resist the hero’s spotlight. The defensive pressure made Bryant force a double-clutch jumper that fell way short. The Suns, anticipating overtime, fell asleep in the lane. So did the Lakers. Except for one determined man.
“I thought Kobe got fouled on the shot,” said Artest. “So I just kind of figured it was going to be short. And it was short.”
“I wasn’t playing my game from the beginning,” Artest added. “In the second half, I was finding my way a little bit, made some good passes and good steals and got some rebounds. So I guess that aggressive play can carry over in to that last possession.”
Running across the lane, he put a body on Richardson, grabbed the ball, and hit the biggest shot of his career. Bryant wrapped him in a bear hug. Confetti rained down from the stands.
Said a dejected Richardson: “He just got through. I looked and turned and he was already heading over that way. I thought the ball was going to hit the rim.”
Had Bryant’s shot hit the rim, or had he passed to Fisher, this would be not be a story about Artest’s redemption, but about how he almost cost the Lakers the most important game of the year.
“It was a great moment,” said Fisher. “And we’re very happy for Ron, because Ron’s been asked to sacrifice a lot of his game to really try and fit in the way we do things.”
“It means a lot for him,” Bryant said. “I think for him emotionally, it’s a big boost. … Once I released the ball, I saw Ron sneaking in. I was just hoping that he got it off in time.”
Here’s how it looked from the Upper Press Box, miles above the court:
As for the Suns, they sounded down, but hardly out.
“We just didn’t quite finish the game,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. “I have no complaints. They played great. We hung in. We did a great job against Kobe on the last shot, just didn’t come up with the rebound. To me, it’s a great effort by us, and they know we’re not going to go away.”
Everything is OK,” Nash said. “We can’t knock a great effort. Maybe we deserved this game, maybe we didn’t. They held home court. We’ll go back and do the same, and we’ll come back here for Game 7.”
For more on what the players said, here’s a couple of postgame interviews.