Phil Jackson wasn’t sure why he was in, but Ron Artest made the play of the day. It’s all about the little things, like just boxing out.
In case you missed the game and then have spent the last seven hours avoiding all other contact with human beings (or, you know, sleeping), here is the shot everyone is talking about.
Watch Ron Artest on the play. He is a decoy that goes to the far side of the court and is at the opposite side three point line when Kobe Bryant starts his shooting motion. But he wanted the ball and went and got it.
The Suns were right there. They were within striking distance, with plenty left in the tank, and thanks to a miracle three by Jason Richardson, had a real shot at forcing overtime and taking the decisive Game 5. It just wasn’t meant to be.
Ron Artest’s put-back crushed those hopes with a few bounces on the rim, but that doesn’t change where the Suns were and how they got there.
Or rather, who got them there. Steve Nash was absolutely magnificent in the fourth quarter, and he had a performance worthy of his MVP standing. Nash was responsible for 11 straight points prior to Richardson’s three-pointer, all products of his own creative efforts. These weren’t catch-and-shoot looks, but contested drives to the basket and pull-up opportunities that found nothing but net. Nash is just that good of a scorer when he wants to be, or in this case, when Phil Jackson wanted him to be.
Nash clearly didn’t shrink from the spotlight, and it was Steve’s efforts that put the Suns in a position to win Game 5. That said, the Laker defense switched on screens to better cover Amar’e Stoudemire on the roll, and stayed home on the Suns’ three-point shooters to avoid getting burned by the long-range game.
“They changed their defense tonight,” Nash said. “They switched more pick-and-rolls,
so [there were] more opportunities to isolate. So that’s really, again, we stick to
what we do and just try to read the defense and make the right play.
And tonight, since they changed, I tried to change.”
It worked…to an extent, as Stoudemire only had 19 points on 12 shots and the Suns were a merely average 33.3% (9-of-27) from three-point range. Nash, meanwhile, put up 20 field goal attempts, which was by far the high among the Suns and understandably so considering the game had relatively few possessions (90).
Had Ron Artest not leaped out of the shadows to grab the game-winning bucket, the Lakers’ defensive strategy on Nash would undoubtedly be considered part of their downfall. Steve was that good down the stretch.
There are a lot of distributors in this league that opposing coaches should seek to “make into a scorer,” as a means of halting ball and player movement. Nash doesn’t seem like he’d be such a player; Steve is one of the best shooters in the league (if not the very best), and he scores so efficiently that he can carry an offense if need be.
The only trouble is that history is Phil Jackson’s ally in this case. Nash’s game seems like it would be triumph over such a strategy (and in Game 5 it was, as Nash finished with 29 points on 60% shooting while still getting his 11 assists), but in playoff games where Steve has taken 20 or more attempts (including this one), the Suns are 3-8. Take away overtime games, and the Suns are 2-6 in such games. Stats like that aren’t necessarily fair after a game like this one, but it’s an interesting trend if nothing else.
Don’t misunderstand my meaning; this game’s result is not justification for the method. Nash very nearly won the game for the Suns, and with a few more free throw makes (Phoenix shot an unseemly 20-of-29 from the line), defensive stops, or rebounds, he probably would have. This one just went the other way, despite an awfully strong performance from one of the best point guards in the game.
Phil Jackson has seen everything.
Well, except a player go from goat to hero faster than Ron Artest did on Thursday night, he said.
With one minute left and the Lakers up three, Artest took an early-in-the-shot-clock three that literally had half of Staples Center yelling, “nooooo.” Fans scorned him — “Trevor Ariza never would have taken that shot” — and Jackson said he almost benched him.
“I don’t know why I left him in the game,” Jackson said. “I actually
questioned it myself when I put him out there on the floor, and there he
was. Made the key play.”
Tied 101-101 with 3.5 seconds left, the Suns defended the Lakers inbound play perfectly. Everyone in Staples (and watching at home, and in the Milky Way) knew the ball was headed to Kobe. It did, and Kobe went for the quick catch, spin and shoot from three. But Grant Hill got his hand in there to force Kobe to double-clutch. The shot was short and the game was headed to overtime.
Then came Ron Artest.
“I thought Kobe got fouled on the shot,” Artest said. “So I just kind of figured it was going to be short…. And it was a little short.”
While nine other players on the court were ball watching, Artest moved from the weak to the strong side, caught the short airball, landed, spun and put up a quick bank shot. Net. Lakers 103-101, and what had looked like a series that might get away from the Lakers suddenly is firmly in their grasp, up 3-2.
Was that the biggest shot of Artest’s career?
“Biggest layup,” he said.
Artest was mobbed by his teammates and Staples Center was as loud as it has been since last year’s NBA Finals. Maybe louder.
Up to that point, save for one big steal and break away layup, Artest had not had an impact on the game. Then he had the bad one with a minute left, first taking a questionable jumper with the Lakers up three. But Pau Gasol grabbed the rebound and kicked it back out to Artest for a full new 24-second clock. And Artest launched a three that almost made him the goat because the Suns now had life (and they had been fighting back all night). Two missed threes and two Suns offensive rebounds later, Jason Richardson called bank and hit the three that tied the game. Okay, he didn’t call bank. But nobody cares, it still counts. Game tied 101-101.
But then came the shot. Maybe THE shot of the playoffs so far. And there was nothing but love for Artest in Staples. He was mobbed by teammates, fans screamed. And the Suns all felt nauseous.
It’s not about Kobe Bryant seemingly scoring at will this series. Or Pau Gasol in the post. It’s not about Amare Stoudemire or the awakening of the Suns bench.
It’s about defense — that is what has decided every game in this series up to now, it is what will decide Game 5 tonight at Staples Center. The winner Thursday probably wins the whole shootin’ match in the West. This is huge.
In the first two games, the Lakers defense took away the Suns easy baskets on the pick-and-roll. Lakers guards fought over the top of the pick, the big men showed out and other Lakers stayed at home on the three-point shooters. The Lakers took away the dribble penetration that the Suns thrive on and forced them to be jump shooters, and while the Suns are a good jump shooting team they hit less of those than dunks. Or open threes.
But that changed in Games 3 and 4, as did the Suns defense.
The Suns zone defense has gotten a lot of publicity, but it really hasn’t stopped the Lakers from scoring — particularly in Game 4, when the Lakers were putting up points at a high level.
But the zone has dictated how those points have come, and with that the flow of the games. The Lakers launched 60 three pointers in the last two games, and they are not a good outside shooting team. This led to a lot of long rebounds and the chance for the Suns to get easy baskets in transition. The Lakers scored, but the Suns defense helped them score much more.
If the Suns can again keep the Lakers from getting their points at the rim — turning the Lakers into jump shooters like LA is trying to do to them — they will get those same break chances, those same easy points and maybe the same wins.
Kobe is going to get his, but will he get any help from teammates this time around who stop shooting outside and start driving inside? Can Nash and Stoudemire keep getting their shots at the rim, keep exposing the slow rotations of an injured Andrew Bynum?
The answer to one of those questions will be yes, because they will have figured out the other team’s defense. Whichever team’s defense hold firm will win Game 5. And maybe have earned a trip to the Finals.