It’s kind of ironic that one of the Suns’ core defensive strategies is to force Ron Artest to shoot the basketball.
It worked when Artest hoisted up a pair of bricks with the Lakers up three with a minute left, but with Grant Hill and Steve Nash draped all over Kobe Bryant on his last-second fadeaway three, Jason Richardson forget to box out Artest, who swooped in to catch the air ball and in one motion flung the ball into the basket for the deciding score at the buzzer.
And just like that Ron Artest, a player who had not scored on an offensive put-back all series and had made just a single shot all night in eight attempts, shockingly became the hero in this 103-101 Game 5 victory that puts the Lakers up 3-2.
“He just got through,” Jason Richardson told reporters. “I looked and turned and he was already heading over that way. I thought the ball was going to hit the rim. I didn’t know it was going to come up that short.”
Added Jared Dudley, “Ron was in the right place at the right time.”
The tough part for the Suns to swallow is that they forced Kobe into a ridiculously tough shot that not even he had a prayer at knocking down — and then when the ‘D’ forced an air ball it ended up benefiting the Lakers in the end.
After Dudley started off on Kobe, Hill switched onto him and Nash was in his zone as he immediately hurled up a prayer to allow for time for a rebound. If it hadn’t been an air ball — or of course if J-Rich had done a better job keeping track of Artest — they could still be playing right now.
Only moments before, the tenor in Staples Center was completely different. Instead of Kobe and Artest embracing, it was Jason Richardson spewing emotion and Robin Lopez jumping around with his teammates on the bench like a long-haired wild man.
One play earlier J-Rich had banked home a long game-tying three with three seconds left to erase a Lakers deficit for the first time since the final moments of the first quarter.
It was a breathtaking moment, as first Nash rebounded his own missed three and kicked it to an open and in-rhythm Richardson, who missed the shot only to see Frye rebound it a la Shawn Marion and kick it back out to J-Rich a la Tim Thomas and see him do exactly what Thomas did four years ago, only with a little bit of bank action.
This seemed to be the moment the Suns needed to turn the series for good. It would have been the epitome of stealing a game since the Lakers had controlled this contest since the early parts of the first quarter, the kind of win that likely would have propelled Phoenix to the Finals.
“It’s a high and a low,” Richardson said. “It’s luck of the ball, I guess.”
But there’s a reason the Lakers have now won 28 of their previous 31 home playoff games. They find ways to win, and the ball always seems to bounce their way in this building.
The Suns trailed by as many as 17 in the first half after the Lakers exploded out to a 32-9 run in the first half, and then after Phoenix cut the deficit to eight at the half Los Angeles ballooned it back up to 18 late in the third quarter.
At both points it kind of seemed like the Suns were destined to be blown out, but as anybody who has watched this squad all year knows, there is no quit in this team. The Suns just continued to chip away, mixing in timely threes (of which they hit just 9-of-27 for the game), while holding the Lakes to just 41.8 percent shooting.
Steve Nash also donned his Superman cape in this one, going off for 29 points on 12-for-20 shooting and 11 assists, making a big play whenever the Suns needed one down the stretch. Before the Richardson three, he scored or assisted on all nine of Phoenix’s points after an Amare dunk at the 4:50 mark.
It was a superstar performance in which Nash seemed to be willing the Suns to victory before they fell so disturbingly close. Nash did everything, but — surprisingly — knock down all his free throws, as he missed two of his five freebies on a night when the Suns hit just 20-of-29 (69.0 percent) from the charity stripe. In a game that went down to the buzzer, those nine misses for a pretty good free-throw shooting team are a big deal.
As Mike Schmitz writes, the Suns also yielded 18 second-chance points in a game in which the Lakers corralled 19 offensive rebounds and won the battle of the boards 49-40.
Lamar Odom beat up the Suns with a game-high 13 boards (five offensive) off the bench, getting the better of Amare Stoudemire and his four rebounds, as I write in the Daily Dime.
Both offenses declined to more typical efficiency numbers that would look good when compared to anything but the explosive figures the teams put up in the first four games, as the Lakers went for 110.8 points per 100 possessions and the Suns 108.6. It was the Suns’ least efficient game of the series and the Lakers’ second-least efficient (Game 3).
On the Lakers’ side Derek Fisher went for 22, Kobe needed 27 shots to get his 30 (although he added 11 boards, nine assists and four blocks) and Andrew Bynum missed all five of his shots in 19 minutes.
For the Suns, Channing Frye was a game-high +10 and knocked down 3-of-8 threes (although he missed a few crucial ones late) while snatching 10 boards, and Amare added 19 and three blocks.
This was a gut-punch game if there’s ever been one. The Suns were milliseconds away from a chance to steal the game in overtime and take complete command of the series.
Instead the Suns head home knowing they may have just blown their best chance at pulling off an upset in Staples Center, as they’re now in a position down 3-2 that historically ends in defeat 85.4 percent of the time.
But for now, there’s only one thing the Suns can do.
“You know, everything’s OK,” said Nash, ever the optimist. “We came back obviously with a great effort. Maybe we deserve 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.”