The Lakers are going back to the Finals.
Exactly one year (to the day) after beating the Denver Nuggets and advancing to its second consecutive Finals looking to right the previous year’s wrong, the Lakers defeated the Phoenix Suns 111-103 in game 6 of the WCF and are now going to their third consecutive championship series and looking to exact revenge. The series that everyone has been looking forward to is right around the corner. But before we think about that next match up, we need to properly take in the events from Saturday and appreciate what the Lakers have done.
First and foremost, the Phoenix Suns deserve our congratulations and a load of credit. The team that overachieved all season reached the Western Conference Finals and gave the Lakers everything they could handle over the course of the series. After two blowout losses to start the WCF, the Suns fought as hard as possible in the last 4 games and just came up short. And while they may not yet have a championship caliber team, they compete with the heart of a champion and they’ve earned the respect of basketball pundits and fans everywhere. They’re just a great, great team. And special recognition needs to be given to Steve Nash. I think commenter Tra said it very well in the comments:
Much Respect to General Nash. I Salute You. The man is so under appreciated. I understand that we have several Good (Paul, D. Williams, Billups, Parker …) , and up & coming (Rose, Rondo, Westbrook, Jennings …) Point Guards in the Association, but if I had to choose 1 to go to war with in a game 7, I would choose Nash over all of them. His Shooting Accuracy, Determination/Competitiveness & High Basketball IQ more than makes up for what he lacks on the defensive side of the ball.
But as great as Nash is, game 6 wasn’t about his brilliance, it was about the otherworldly play of Kobe Bryant. Over the course of the season we’ve seen game winners, fantastic performances in the face of injury, and that incredible will to win. But tonight encapsulated the specialness that is Kobe Bean Bryant. In a closeout game on the road and a home crowd that was ready to explode on the next positive play that their team could produce, Kobe quieted them. Repeatedly. The man with the iron will and the ice water in his veins showed how tremendous skill and unshakable focus can combine to create a nearly unbeatable force on the basketball court. Usually the cliche “he wouldn’t let his team lose” is oversold, but tonight it was dead on when describing Kobe. 37 points (on 25 shots), 10 of 11 at the foul line, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and a +19 in 41 minutes of game time. He was the dominant force in this game.
And oh what a game.
The contest started out as a shootout as both teams beat some pretty good (but not great) defense with plain better offense. Both teams played to their strengths as the Suns pushed the ball up court, found open shooters, and knocked down threes. Meanwhile the Lakers were getting the ball inside as 6 of their first 8 points came in the paint on two buckets by Bynum and a steal/dunk by Ron Artest. And throughout the entire quarter, both teams just continued to make shots as neither defense could find a solution to the other teams offense. Be it long jumpers, foul shots, post ups, or fast breaks, both teams just had it going. By the time that the first 12 minutes elapsed, the Lakers had 37 points and the Suns had 34. And while Phil Jackson may have called it ragged and surely thought the pace was too fast, for the fans watching in the arena or at home, it was simply a terrific show.
But as the game wore on, only one team would continue to put up the points. As the pace slowed and both teams settled into more half court sets, it was the Lakers that found ways to but the ball in the basket consistently. Sure, Kobe was doing his thing, but in support of #24 was Artest, Bynum, LO, and Jordan Farmar. Over the middle portion of the game, it was these Lakers that continued to punish the Suns’ zone with penetration, jumpers that the Suns were willing to give up but finding results that were difficult to live with, and inside play that the Suns just didn’t seem to have an answer for. As the Suns’ D shifted towards Kobe (who was still making shots) and Gasol (who wasn’t), Artest (and others) thrived by knocking down shot after shot that just continued to boost the Lakers lead. So, by the time that the 3rd quarter ended the Lakers were ahead by 17 and looked to be in a pretty comfortable position.
But, like all very good NBA teams, the Suns made their push. And they can thank Sasha Vujacic for giving them their inspiration. Because after Goran Dragic made a nice step back jumper with Sasha trying to contest the shot, Dragic was able to bait Sasha into hitting him in the face with his arm. After Dragic fell down like he was shot, the Phoenix crowd was suddenly back alive and the Suns had Dragic at the line for 2 FTs (flagrant 1 on Sasha) plus possession of the ball. And after Dragic knocked down the freebies and then got two more points on a lay up after the inbounds, the Suns had shaved off 6 points from the Lakers lead and the run was on. After a miss from Odom, Dragic got another layup and the Lakers lead was down to 9. Farmar put a temporary stop to the bleeding with an 18 foot jumper on the next possession, but that would be short lived as after misses by both teams Frye hit a jumper and Amar’e got a dunk. And suddenly what was a 17 point game was now a 7 point one with the Suns’ momentum building and their crowd roaring.
However, this is where having Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher pays off. Both of these players have been in these battles and know what it takes to win on the road in these types of games. And in the final 7 and a half minutes, it would be these two 13 year veterans that would carry the Lakers home. First it was a Fisher jumper to push the lead back to 9. That would be followed by a Kobe jumper and then another by Fisher that continued to match the Suns’ buckets at the other end. And in the Final 2 minutes, Kobe would take over for good. Making an array of jumpers that will live forever in his highlight reels, Kobe was simply…Kobe and closed the door on the Suns. A leaning quick release flick from straight away? A hanging, clutching jumper from 15 feet on the right baseline? A 22 foot fade away as he spun away from a double team on the extended right wing? Yes, yes, yes. Again, simply amazing.
And while not everything was perfect and there will be improvements that are needed in the Finals, that is something to think about on another day. Today is about celebration. It’s not often that a team makes it to three straight NBA Finals. And it’s even more rare to have one of the all time great players on the team that you root for. So for now cherish these things; celebrate them as this is not the norm. We have until next Thursday to talk about the Finals (and we’ll do plenty, believe me) so for now cherish this moment – I know that I will.
And since I can’t resist, check out the Lakers highlights from this win.