The momentum had clearly shifted. After leading by 18 points, and then failing to reach out for defensive rebounds (they had three chances!), the Lakers got what they deserved — a bank-in three-pointer from Jason Richardson to tie the game at 101.
It had come down to this… again. 3.5 seconds left in regulation and all eyes on Kobe Bryant. Flanked by Steve Nash and Grant Hill, Bryant tossed up a prayer and hit nothing but air. Channing Frye had his arm wrapped around Pau Gasol who stood by the hoop, and Jason Richardson awaited the ball’s landing, when as if from nowhere, Ron Artest sprinted, reached out his arms, grabbed the ball and tossed in a layup. Two points. Buzzer. Lakers lead the series 3-2.
“I always remind him, this is why he came here,” Lamar Odom said of his childhood friend, who can now add a game winner to his resume. “Not too many people would follow a shot, but his whole life is about perseverance.”
When the game began, it appeared as if the Lakers had brought their C-game back from Phoenix. Perseverance was nowhere to be found. Pau’s first two shots were blocked by Amar’e Stoudemire, Kobe committed two fouls two minutes into the game, and it took almost 4 ½ minutes between the home team’s first and second field goal makes. They looked hesitant on offense, frazzled on defense and the exact opposite of focused.
In 9:40 minutes of game, the Lakers had 13 points and were shooting 25%. It certainly wasn’t the start they were hoping for in a pivotal Game 5, but eventually, the defending champions found their mojo.
Derek Fisher, who finished the evening with 22 points and four assists, was an offensive catalyst, especially after his fellow team captain had to sit due to early foul trouble in the first quarter. He hit jumpers from all over the floor, scored two three-pointers, went 6-6 from the freethrow line, and dribble drove to the hoop for layups like it was 1996. After being down 13-6, the Lakers took the lead, 24-21, after a 17-6 run (11 points from Fisher).
In the second quarter, the Lakers’ defense slowed the Suns enough to create a 17-point lead and leading the way was Kobe “watch me hit three in a row from downtown” Bryant. Bryant had 30 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists — one stat away from a triple double.
All the Suns could counter with in that Bryant onslaught was sharp shooting Steve Nash. For a few possessions in a row, it was like basketball banter from Bryant and the Suns’ point guard. Both had 15 points to end the half with the Lakers leading by eight points.
The second half, was a mixed bag of wildly entertaining offense from the Lakers (Fisher’s driving lay-ups, Lamar Odom’s no-look pass to an open Pau Gasol for a dunk, and Bryant being, well, Bryant), actively stifling defense (the Lakers created an 18-point lead), and expectedly, crippling inconsistency.
After building such a large lead, the Lakers went lax on their defense and allowed a Jared Dudley 4-point play, not to mention a Channing Frye comeback. With an 11-2 run to cut the lead to six, 72-78, the Suns would not waver.
Twelve minutes away from taking, or being at the bad end of, a 3-2 series lead, the Lakers tried, and failed, to maintain their defensive intensity and ball movement, allowing the Suns to chip away at the lead. There were lapses in judgment and execution a-plenty.
With under a minute left and the home team leading by three, Ron Artest secured an offensive rebound after missing a three-pointer, and instead of resetting, jacked up another three-pointer with 22 seconds left on the shot clock, resulting in a defensive rebound for the Suns.
The Suns, in the next 30 or so seconds, hoisted three attempts to tie the game, and unfortunately for those who did not box out, third time was the charm. A bank-in 3-pointer from Jason Richardson tied the game and the Lakers had 3.5 to undo it… and they did it.
“It’s amazing. You go through all this preparation and it just comes down to fundamental things, “ Kobe Bryant said in his post-game presser. “They knocked down a 3-pointer because we didn’t box out. Then they wound up losing the game because they didn’t box out.”
“Those plays like that are the difference between a championship team and a really good team,” Alvin Gentry said.
However, such situations can be avoided if you master and apply the fundamentals — boxing out, rebounding, clock awareness. To win Game 6 on the road, these are what the Lakers must be mindful of, and it won’t be an easy task after they allowed the Suns a chance to steal one on their home floor, but Derek Fisher has his plans.
“[We have to] keep fighting, keep playing hard, play smarter, eliminate mistakes,” Fisher told Michael Eaves after the game. “Play through everything regardless of what happens. Keep believing in each other and staying together.”
The Lakers are up for the challenge that Game 6 possesses.
“There’s absolutely no doubt that we love this,” Phil Jackson said before tonight’s game. “This is what champions are made of. It SHOULD be like this.”
Like THIS… a battle, survival of the toughest, the smartest, the most determined.
Pre-Game Thoughts: Defend your home court, Lakeshow.
Half-Time Thoughts: It took the majority of the first quarter to get themselves going, but the Lakers picked it up defensively and offensively, to take a 45-53 lead.
Most Thoughtless Player(s) of the Game: Aside from his 21 points, Pau Gasol gets tonight’s honor for getting owned for being 7 feet tall but allowing 6 foot 3 inch Steve Nash to dominate against him. USE. YOUR. SIZE.
Most Thought-filled Player(s) of the Game: Ron Artest hit the game winner, Kobe Bryant had another brilliant game, but the most thoughtful player tonight was Derek Fisher, who, with 22 points and four assists, showed what decorum and poise in the face of pressure looks like.