Nothing demoralizes a team more than second-chance points, and the Phoenix Suns learned that the hardest way possible tonight when Ron Artest snared a Kobe Bryant air ball and finished the game winner at the buzzer to hand the Lakers a pivotal 3-2 lead in the Western Conference Finals.
The Suns played perfect defense on Kobe, who jacked up a three with two Suns hands in his face, but Jason Richardson missed a box-out assignment on Artest, who quickly saved himself from goat status to heroism.
But although Artest’s game-winner is what will be ingrained in the minds of the Suns forever, it was the 16 second-chance points that came in the first 47 minutes and 59 seconds that kept Phoenix in comeback mode as it clawed back from an 18-point deficit to finally tie it up with 3.5 seconds left.
After being dominated on the glass in Game 4 — 51-36 — the Lakers returned the favor as they out-rebounded the Suns 49-40 and chased down 19 offensive boards.
Not only did the never-ending Lakers o-boards give them second chances to score, they also kept Phoenix from getting out on the break and playing Suns basketball — with Phoenix collecting just nine fast-break points.
It wasn’t until the Suns rattled off a 16-4 run to close out the third quarter that they sped the game up from the methodical Lakers pace. But when it mattered most the Suns didn’t come up with the so-called 50-50 ball and went from on the verge of stealing one in LA and taking a 3-2 series lead to heading back to Phoenix on the brink of elimination.
Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said at practice earlier this week that rebounding out of the zone was his biggest fear when he employed it in Game 3. And that inability to board out of the 2-3 reared its ugly head in a big way tonight.
No Suns player snared more than six rebounds — other than Channing Frye of all people, who grabbed 10 — and the Lakers kept their distance thanks to put-back after put-back from Lamar Odom (17 points, 13 rebounds) and Pau Gasol (21 points, nine rebounds), while Kobe also grabbed 11 boards.
But it wasn’t just the second-chance points that allowed the Lakers to fend off the Suns. Phoenix committed 15 turnovers, which led to 23 Lakers points. That’s 41 points right there that the Suns gave up off mental lapses and lack of effort. Then add in the fact that the Suns missed nine of their 29 free throws, and it is clear how badly they shot themselves in the foot tonight.
There is no question they showed unbelievable resilience to even make this a ball game and be an Artest put-back away from pushing it to overtime. But they simply made too many errors on the glass, with the ball and at the line, which showed up more than ever as the Suns were left watching Kobe’s last-second heave instead of securing the basketball at the most crucial juncture of the game.
This game was nothing like the first two in LA when the Lakers shot 58 percent and averaged 56 points in the paint. The Suns held them to 41.8 percent from the field and 29.2 percent from three while allowing 38 points in the paint.
But while the Suns lacked toughness on the interior, shot 69.0 percent from the line and gave the Lakers 20 points off turnovers, LA missed only three of its 23 free tosses (87.0 percent), turned the ball over 10 times and kept the Suns on the perimeter, allowing only 26 points in the paint.
If you believe in moral victories, to even come back from an 18-point deficit to tie it up with 3.5 seconds to go says a lot about the character of this Suns team. But despite the incredible comeback, the Suns missed a golden opportunity to beat the Lakers in LA in Game 5 of a 2-2 history for the first time ever and now head back to Phoenix one win away from elimination.