Surrounded by downtown Los Angeles or the Phoenix desert, dressed in their yellow, white or purple jerseys, it doesn’t matter much to the defending Champions. Having closed every series in the Playoffs away from the comforts of Staples Center, the Lakers have proven that when it comes to winning, time, location, or uniform is but a trivial circumstance.
Tonight, faced with a Phoenix Suns team determined to take back a win they felt they should have gotten in Game 5, the Lakers were prepared to close the series on the first try. There would be no Memorial Day game. There was only tonight.
Both teams scored easily in the first quarter. Andrew Bynum looked limber, scoring over Robin Lopez and causing the Suns center to commit two early fouls. Bynum finished with 10 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots. The game was tight at the onset, leads changing, neither team creating any large leads due to the each others hot shooting. Particularly hot-handed was Ron Artest who scored 12 points in the first quarter.
Still high from hitting the game winning shot in the Game 5 thriller, Artest was a confident and determined man on the floor. Whether he was left wide open from downtown (4-7 from behind the arc), or rebounding missed shots for second chance opportunities (25 points on 10-16 from the field); whether he was stealing the ball from under Channing Frye’s arm to make up for a blank possession or closing in on Suns’ scoring machines Amar’e Stoudemire and Jason Richardson, Artest was a perfect image of effort meeting efficiency. With Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom unable to contribute to the Lakers’ offense, Artest was a true complement to Kobe Bryant.
Completely outshined by the Suns’ reserves on their last visit to Phoenix, the Lakers bench, though outscored 36-22, was ready to chip in. Jordan Farmar hit two from downtown in the first half, over Jared Dudley and Robin Lopez, and handed out a team high five assists. He directed the offense and hit a timely jumper in the fourth quarter after the offensively onslaught from Goran Dragic. Lamar Odom only scored six points, but he also had a team high 12 rebounds.
After 24 minutes, the Lakers held a 12-point lead and were shooting 53% from the field to Suns’ 46%.
In the third quarter, it appeared as if the Lakers had the game well in their favor. They were playing with energy on both sides of the court, clearly fighting for every rebound and smothering any Suns attempt to score. In one sequence, Odom rebounded a missed Farmar three, passed it to a running Artest, who swung his left arm and scored two points. With baseline jumper from Kobe to end the third, the Lakers held a 91-74 lead and the NBA Finals were only 12 minutes away.
Unfortunately, the Phoenix Suns were never a team to shy away from challenge. Just as they did with the 18-point lead that the Lakers had built in Game 5, they chipped away with the help of reserve point guard Goran Dragic who scored eight straight points to cut the deficit. Sasha Vujacic, clearly no friend to his countryman, was called for a flagrant-1 after elbowing Dragic in the chin. It was the clear momentum changer and Phoenix took advantage, able to cut the lead all the way to three points.
During a timeout, Phil Jackson said to his players as they approached the bench, “”Don’t try to do everything on your own. Let’s get it together as a team. Now we have to play with the poise that we have.”
And they showed it, that championship poise, led by the usual suspects, Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher.
“The trust that Phil has shown in me over the years, and the trust that Kobe Bryant shows in me,” Derek Fisher said after the game, “I want come through for those guys.”
And did he ever. Fisher scored on a jumper late in crunch time, something he’s familiar with. He then followed that with an offensive foul call on Amar’e Stoudemire. Bryant hit a one-handed tosser to beat the shot clock buzzer and then passed to Fisher for a running jumper. Bryant then followed that with a baseline jumper and then, the dagger, a double-pump by the Suns’ bench, over the defense of Grant Hill giving the Lakers a 107-100 lead with less than a minute to go in the game. Despite a Steve Nash 3 to cut the lead to 108-103, it was obvious where this game was headed.
“Every time we got it close, Kobe made an incredible tough shot and for that there is no answer,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. “What can you say about Kobe? There’s an intense game going on, but you almost have to laugh at what he does.”
And because of what he does, the Lakers are set for their third trip to the NBA Finals in three straight seasons.
Now begins a new mission. Call it what you want — an opportunity for revenge, a mission for redemption, a challenge, like Bryant said, to see how much the team has improved from their last Playoff meeting. In the end, however, there is really just the ONE GOAL.
“The challenge is to win a championship,” Kobe Bryant said from the post-game podium. “And the Celtics are in the way.”
The road to title number 16 begins now.
Pre-Game Thoughts: A.B.C. — Always Be Closing
Half-Time Thoughts: Lakers are up by 12 points. Ron Artest is leading all scores with 17 and they’re 8-14 from downtown! Wow!
Most Thoughtless Player(s) of the Game: Sasha Vujacic for picking the Suns up when the Lakers had them down. It doesn’t matter that Dragic deserved an Academy Award. That was a thoughtless move during such a crucial game when the margin for error and boneheadedness is tiny.
Most Thought-filled Player(s) of the Game: Ron Artest — for maintaining his momentum from Game 5. Talk about maximum effort and intelligence out there on the court!