Kobe, Lakers halt Suns’ dream season in West Finals


PHOENIX — Jared Dudley was just finishing up explaining how Kobe Bryant is “arguably” the best player on the planet when Amare Stoudemire interjected his opinion from his locker next door.

“He is the best player on the planet,” Stoudemire said. “No doubt.”

Nobody who watched Game 6 would argue with Stoudemire’s assessment, as Kobe knocked down what would be a season’s worth of tough shots for some guys in his 37-point performance Saturday night, a 111-103 Lakers victory that eliminated the Suns.

Ron Artest chipped in as well with his best game of the series on the heels of his miraculous last-second put-back in Game 5, scoring 25 points on 10-for-16 shooting after entering the night 12-for-35 overall and 3-for-15 from three in Games 3-5.

“Ron Artest got it going,” Stoudemire said. “I think his confidence from hitting the game-winner the night before carried over.”

The Lakers led by as many as 18 points late in the third quarter for the second straight game, but once again the Suns fought back, and it all started with a little Slovenian civil war when Sasha Vujacic’s flagrant-1 elbow with the Lakers up 15 led to a four-point possession that ignited the Suns.

The play completely shifted the momentum of a game previously controlled by Los Angeles and woke up the ORNG-clad Phoenix fans that seemed half dead during the Gorilla’s pre-fourth quarter dunking display. Just like that the Suns seemed to have new life.

“I was just close to him and he hit me, but that’s all it was,” said Dragic, who may have acted a bit on the fall to exaggerate the hit. “I’m not mad at him, and I hope he’s not mad at me. What happened happened and now it’s over.”

After saying on the TNT broadcast that he wanted to kill Vujacic after the game, a smiling Bryant joked postgame that “he’s still breathing.”

Unlike Game 5 when Vujacic’s defense stifled Dragic in the first half at least, The Dragon played the fourth quarter with a vengeance, scoring eight points in the final period to help bring the Suns as close as three points down with 2:19 to go.

But from there Kobe Bryant took over, hitting a couple ridiculous jumpers under intense pressure to seal the deal and patting Alvin Gentry on the butt after one of the daggers for good measure.

“I’m not sure those are shooter’s shots,” Nash said. “Those are scorer’s, best-player-in-the-game-type shots. He is incredibly skilled, talented. He’s a great competitor, clutch, skilled. What can you say? He deserves an incredible amount of praise for his ability.”

Of one of the shots, Hill said, “I was as close as you can get probably without fouling, and he hits just an unbelievable shot. You’ve got to give him credit. He hit unbelievable shots all series, and he ended the series with a great shot there at the end.”

Although it ended up all going for naught, the comeback personified the Suns’ season. They just always kept fighting and never gave up, which Dragic said is the biggest difference between Phoenix and previous teams he played on in Europe.

With the Lakers figuring out the Suns’ zone and stiffening up their own defense — particularly during Phoenix’s 19-point second quarter — this series seemed over late in the third quarter, but the Suns refused to quit even when all hope seemed to be lost.

“You see that this team has no quit, a lot of pride, a lot of determination,” Dudley said.

Added Hill, “There was no quit, no giving up.”

In what could be his final game in a Phoenix Suns uniform, Amare Stoudemire didn’t exactly sparkle. Sure, he ended up scoring a team-high 27 points while getting to the free-throw line 15 times, but he hit just 7-of-20 shots and pulled down only four rebounds (in 43 minutes) for the second straight game. The Suns were outboarded 41-31 as a team despite 13 from Channing Frye.

Poor rebounding was a trend for Stoudemire, who grabbed just 6.0 boards per game for the series, and in this contest game he struggled with the stifling interior defensive game plan Los Angeles geared to stop him.

“It was tough,” Stoudemire said. “They did a great job of anytime I caught the ball they had a box-and-one almost, guys on the elbows, guys on the box, and guys on the weak side already cheating over, so they didn’t allow me to make any moves. I was able to get going a tad bit offensively, but not the way I really wanted to because of their team.”

Stoudemire did not sound like a man ready to make a long-term commitment to the organization after the game, reiterating his 50-50 stance as I write in today’s Daily Dime and saying, “I’m not sure. Still have a long summer ahead of us. I’ve got to figure out the best decision for myself, the organization and my family.”

There will be many days ahead to discuss Stoudemire’s future, but tonight was not one of them. Instead it was a night to feel saddened by the end of the season but proud of how far the Suns have come.

In the end, while the Suns were surely disappointed by their season coming to an end, taking the long view Phoenix overachieved to the max by coming two games shy of the Finals and Alvin Gentry would not let anybody look at this night as a negative.

“It was a well-played series,” Gentry said. “We were very competitive in this series. We happened to run into a team that was the world champs and is going to have an opportunity to win another one. I think rather than have any negatives, and I told our guys, there is no negatives to anything that happened to us in the last month.

“We gave it our all. We happened to play a team, they were just better than we were in this series.”