There are so many things to say about this game. It was exciting. It was hard fought. It was high quality basketball. It was two teams understanding the importance of the contest and then playing their hearts out to try and bring home the victory. In the end, the Lakers were the team that came out on top and the Suns lost a game that must feel like a kick in the stomach. Because after the Suns tied the game with a Jason Richardson three pointer that left only 3.5 seconds left on the clock, Ron Artest was able to play the hero by sticking a truly difficult put back off an errant Kobe Bryant attempt to win the game. But we’ll talk more about all that a bit later. For now, I cede the floor to Zephid so he can tell the other story to this game:
Overcoming adversity. That’s what Phil Jackson teaches our teams in the regular season, by not calling timeouts, by letting his teams “figure it out themselves.” It is not mental; it is more akin to spiritual. That willingness to give everything of yourself to win a game; to fail, and to learn from failure.
Ron Artest, so maligned for his performance this series and before, just showed what it means to overcome adversity. He is a competitor; he wants to land to knockout blow. You can’t fault him for shooting those shots; he was wide open. But he failed. Big time. Reading up in the comments, you can see the derision directed at him for those shots. No doubt he himself felt just as bad if not worse about his own performance.
However, he overcame the adversity. Everyone knows that Kobe is going to get that last shot; all five of the Suns definitely did. With all their concentration on Kobe, they forgot that the simplest of plays can make the greatest of difference: Artest came entirely across the lane, fought for the rebound, and put up an extremely difficult shot high off the glass. He could’ve easily just skulked on the weak side and waited for the game to go into overtime. But he learned, through failure, that success comes to those who overcome adversity.
But let’s not forget the other stars of this game. First and foremost, credit the Suns for never giving up, for battling hard, and putting forth everything they had to win this game. That’s the one thing that cannot be taken away from the Suns; they battled.
So many other Lakers shined. Kobe Bryant, the leader, came through throughout the game and in the clutch, keying our offense when we were going stagnant. With a game high 30 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists, as well as 4 blocks, he successfully outdueled Steve Nash and put our team on his back in the 4th. Derek Fisher, like Artest, so maligned during the regular season, has hit so many momentum altering shots that I can no longer keep track. 7-12 for 22 points with 4 assists to boot? On a day when Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar gave almost nothing, Fisher showed why he’s the starter, why he’s the veteran, and why he has Phil’s faith. Lamar Odom, so derided for his mental lapses and lack of effort, took the battle to the Suns, grabbing 5 offensive rebounds and making some aggressive moves with his hook shots to the tune of 17 points and 13 rebounds.
In a game we needed to win, our main players showed up and took this hard fought game. Could we have played better? Certainly. But it’s when we don’t play at our best that the team shows its heart.
This truly was an amazing game, though. Besides the game winner and the Suns’ fantastic push to get back in the game after being down by 17 on two different occasions, the intensity level and chess match between both teams was just great theatre.
A few observations from a game that will probably only be remembered for Ron’s redemption:
*The Lakers defense tried to switch up their approach to playing the Suns’ sets. Literally. On a lot of the Suns’ P&R actions, the Lakers not only hedged hard, but had their big man stay with the ball handler for that extra second and ultimately switch on a lot of the ball screens outright. This led to Bynum, Gasol, and Odom playing Nash one on one in space on many possessions. Meanwhile, the rest of the Lakers weak side defenders crowded the paint on Amare’s dives to the rim while the strong side help defenders stayed glued to the Suns shooters. This strategy paid dividends early in the game as it allowed the Lakers to better cover the passing angles that Nash loves to exploit on the P&R (limiting his assist numbers) while also keeping the defensive rotations more manageable. This led to the Lakers playing much better on the ball defense with a ratcheted up intensity that we haven’t seen in several games. However, with the Lakers’ bigs playing Nash a lot he was able to go off scoring the ball…
*Nash ended the night with 29 points – easily his highest output of the series. And even though the Lakers were limiting his assist numbers early, he still ended the night with 11 dimes. I know that as Nash has aged and his defense has remained sub-par those facts make it easy to place him below guys like Deron, CP3, or even Rondo on the PG totem pole. I also understand that there will always be some Nash backlash from his back to back MVP awards. However, it’s nights like these that show you how great a player and competitor he is. His shot making, court vision, and feel for setting up his teammates is simply amazing and it will be a sad day when he’s no longer around and we can’t watch his exploits on the hardwood. Yes, he’s the opponent – the enemy – but he’s one hell of a ball player. Tonight, he did everything he could to lead his team to victory. His team fell short, but it wasn’t because of his lack of effort.
*Phil extended his rotation tonight and it paid dividends. On a night where Farmar (13 minutes, 0-2 FG, 0 points, 4 assists, 2 rebounds) and Shannon Brown (6 minutes, 1-4 FG, 2 points, 1 rebound) didn’t play that well, Phil called Luke and Sasha’s numbers and got some quality minutes out of those two players – especially Sasha. In 9 minutes of game action, Sasha played inspired defense on his countrymen Goran Dragic (getting under his skin with his trademarked pestering style), made 2 of his 4 shots, scored 5 points, and had a few other hustle plays (including a chase down tip from behind on Leandro Barbosa on a Suns’ fast break). I know there have been many that have wanted to see what Sasha could do with some burn and tonight he rewarded the coaches with some solid play. Whether or not Sasha can play well in his next stint is an unknown, but tonight should give the coaches some confidence to give him the chance. And while Luke didn’t have a good game statistically and missed a bunny underneath, he did pick up a key charge on Amar’e and moved the ball well on offense. You know, he did Luke Walton things and overall I was okay with his brief stint.
*On offense, the Lakers did make some subtle adjustments in attacking the Suns’ zone. They did a much better job of flashing players in and out of the high post in order to set up the passing angles to set up the high low action that really hurts the Suns’ scheme. Gasol and Odom combined for 9 assists working from that high post area as they were able to slide in to the creases and make themselves available to receive the ball. The Lakers also started to set ball screens on the guard that was defending Kobe at the top of the zone. This allowed Kobe a bit of extra space on his jumper and then forced a second defender to help – creating some open passing lanes for Kobe to hit open teammates. Kobe matched Pau and LO by getting 9 assists of his own and a lot of that was based off how the Lakers positioned Kobe on the floor (using him on the weak side against the zone) and then the screens they set to free him up.
*Speaking of Kobe, the man is amazing. I mentioned his 9 assists, but he also had 30 points, 11 rebounds, and 4(!) blocked shots. Kobe was everywhere tonight and he did everything for his team. Just as I credited Nash for being a player that competed his hardest to try and get his team the win, the same is true for Kobe. His level of play is astounding (even for his standards) and he’s controlling the game like few perimeter players can or even ever have. He’s just superb. I mean, look at his series stats: 33 points, 9.6 assists, 7.4 rebounds, 53.5% shooting (stats from Marcel Mutoni).
We’re now at the point where the Lakers have a 3-2 series lead and only need one more win to advance to the NBA Finals for the third straight season. Let that sink in for a moment. Tomorrow can be a day to forget that fact and focus on what the Lakers need to do to actually get that precious victory. But tonight, celebrate like the team you root for did after Ron sunk the game winner. Smile. Be happy. This was a fantastic game and the Lakers came out on top. Yes there were things that were bad about this game (you know that I know what they were based off the comments in the game thread), but those things can be discussed another time. Enjoy this win. Games like this don’t come around too often – especially not in crucial contests in the WCF.