Phil Jackson told Paul Pierce this is the matchup he wanted. Kobe just sees another hurdle in his way. Alvin Gentry only sees Kobe Bryant. Steve Nash tries to see the future.
Coming into this year’s playoffs, a lot of people would have pointed to Ron Artest and Derek Fisher as potential weaknesses for the Lakers. Both players are battle-tested veterans who bring hustle and toughness to the floor every time they play. However, Artest and Fisher are also a step or three slow for their positions at this point in their careers, and both struggled to make shots all season. (Artest shot 41.4% from the floor; Fisher shot an abysmal 38%.)
When asked “Kobe or LeBron?” my answer the last year has been “LeBron for the first 42 minutes of the game, Kobe for the last six.”
Saturday night is exactly why.
Kobe is the best closer in the NBA. Kobe is better at making tough shots than anyone in the NBA. Kobe thrives in pressure better than anyone in the NBA.
That was all on display in Game 6. After the Suns made a dramatic run to cut the deficit to three — Sasha Vujacic will be riding home with the luggage on the Lakers flight — Kobe Bryant took over. Nine points in the final two minutes. He sealed it. He was the closer. He is the reason the Lakers won 111-103.
“What can you say about Kobe?” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. “There’s an intense game going on and you almost have to laugh at what he does. I thought we played good defense on him and he just hit tough shot after tough shot.”
The Suns did play great defense. But Kobe made the two signature shots of this series.
The first came at the two-minute mark in the fourth and the Lakers up just three. Los Angeles isolated Kobe on the right wing and the Suns came with the hard double of Grant Hill and Channing Frye. Kobe spun with a quick step right but it didn’t create much room so Kobe just elevated with two men in his face and hit the 21-foot jumper.
Then with 35 seconds left, and the Lakers up just five, Kobe had the ball up high on the right side against Hill and took two hard dribbles right, got no real space but elevated anyway and drained a 23-foot jumper (with his foot on the line).
Then the fading away Kobe patted Gentry on the behind playfully, smiled, and did an airplane run down the court.
A plane that flew the Lakers to the NBA Finals for three straight years.
There wasn’t anything the Suns could do, there is no shame in how they played. This is what Kobe does. He is a cold-blooded assassin. He thrives when it is all on the line. This is why the Lakers are champions. Kobe is why they have a chance to be again.
“He is the best player in basketball. I don’t even think it’s close,” Gentry said.
Not in the final couple minutes it’s not.
The Suns take the floor tonight for Game 6 versus the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers an underdog. They are considered out-sized, out-talented, and outmatched. But the Suns have shown resiliency in this series, coming back from a dour 0-2 deficit to even the series, then pushing the Lakers to the very wire. The Lakers needed a shot Phil Jackson described as “lucky” from Ron Artest (it was actually just a remarkably heady and well executed shot from the explosive wing) to put the Suns away, at home, and set themselves up for a closeout in Phoenix.
We tend to always put things in perspective after they’ve occurred, and the final minutes of a game tends to be the epitaph of a team’s season. The Spurs were a failed experiment. The Jazz were always a fraud. The Cavaliers were foolhardy in acquiring a top stretch four and one of the greatest centers of all time. The list goes on and on. The latest victim will be the Orlando Magic, who had another terrific regular season and swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs before crashing and burning.
So what will the Suns’ tombstone read, if they don’t manage to force a game seven? We’re not trying to bury the Suns before the three point shooting body is cold, but instead we want to take a moment and put this season in context before they face the best team in the Wast in an elimination game.
The Suns had low expectations coming into this season. They were coming off a lottery appearance, trying to rediscover who they were. Amar’e Stoudemire was on the trade block. There was a world of doubt as to whether they could even return to the playoffs. Steve Kerr was on the hot seat after his two biggest decisions, acquiring Shaquille O’Neal and hiring Terry Porter, were both magnificent failures. It was a season expected to be full of angst and discontent.
A return to the fun and gun of the Suns of old, with some improved defense and a focus on rebounding to boot. The Suns did what they did best, spread the ball, enjoy playing basketball, and win games. Still, the doubts persisted. We expected their talent to carry them past a depleted Trailblazers team, and when they lost the first game at home, the talk of the Suns’ style not being able to win in the playoffs (when in fact the only that had been proven is it can’t beat the Conference Champions, particularly the Spurs) started to rumble again.
But they got past Portland, only to face their hated rivals, the Spurs. The Suns spoke of how both teams were difference, that there was no history for them to worry about, but we didn’t buy it. We expected the Spurs’ grinding defense to wear them out, to solve Nash and Stoudemire, and for the Spurs to hit big shots on their way to a victory. Instead, we sat stunned as the Suns raced out to a 2-0 series lead, then took it to the Spurs in San Antonio, and closed them out in a sweep.
Okay, fine, Suns. You had your fun. But this is the big time, the Lakers, the defending champions and the best team in the league. And after two games, we again readied the casket for this Suns team, that looked completely overwhelmed.
But again, they fought back. Amar’e Stoudemire had his best game of the playoffs, and then the bench mob once again showed its teeth. Tie series. Lakers fans were apoplectic. Analysts were simply impressed. This Suns team won’t die. They rallied from down 18 in Game 5 to tie the game before Ron Artest made a game saving play.
But even after that heartbreaking game, after working so hard only to have it disappear, the Suns were unfazed. Steve Nash made comments guaranteeing a Suns win in Game 6. The locker room and subsequent practices were light and upbeat. These guys must be on Prozac. Nothing gets them down.
If the Lakers win tonight, it will be because they were the better team, as they were in the regular season. They spend more money on their All-Star studded roster. They feature a Hall of Famer and several top 20 players on their starting five. They have no excuse for not making the Finals. The Suns? They had no expectations of going this far, no matter what they tell you. But they hung together, played with heart and grit. If they fail to reach the summit, it will not be for lack of effort or heart. They simply won’t have the size and guns to overcome Mount Kobe.
Perhaps that’s the worst part of the playoffs. That so many brilliant careers are tarnished when the other team is simply better. Steve Nash is criticized constantly. “He didn’t deserve two MVPs.” “He can’t play defense.” “He’s not that good.” And yet not only has he played brilliantly, hit huge shots, continued brilliant passing and led this team to the Conference Finals, but he’s done so with a broken nose, a gashed eye, and been bloodied from start to finish. And that’s before we talk about the back pain that forces him to lay down whenever he’s not in the game.
This team has earned your respect. The Lakers being better doesn’t make this Suns team less of a worthy opponent. They’ve taken everything the Lakers can throw at them and come back for more. If they were to win tonight? Anything can happen in a Game 7. If it would shock you to see the Suns in the Finals, you haven’t been paying enough attention to the Suns. It would be stunning for the Lakers not to win the West. Not for the Suns to win it.
This team had nothing more to prove after sweeping Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan into the sea. Pushing LA to a Game 6? Gravy. It’s already been a fantastic season for the Suns. Now we just have to see exactly how much gravy these guys get to add on top.
Think of the Suns/Lakers series as a poker game in an old Wild West saloon somewhere outside Phoenix.
By Game 6, the cards are on the table. Both teams have gone all-in and flipped their two cards over. All that’s left to do is flip over the turn and river cards. Meaning the strategy is out there for everyone to see — there are no major Xs and Os changes to make any more.
But the fight is not done, the Suns are looking loose and talking Game 7. The Lakers want their rest, like the Celtics.
In the Wild West the winner was the guy who was quicker on the draw. In this series, the quicker draw is the team that better executes better.
The key end of the floor this series is when the Lakers have the ball (the other end of the court is the more entertaining). Simply, the Lakers want to slow the Suns down by making them take the ball out of the basket, to make them come up and face a set defense. The Lakers do that when the get the ball inside — either by getting the ball in the post to Pau Gasol or via dribble penetration (which is what they used a lot more in Game 5).
The Suns want to block shots and contest inside, give the Lakers jump shots and hope they miss a lot. Which they often do. In the Lakers two losses in Phoenix they took 60 three-point shots, and the long rebounds fueled the Suns break.
On the fun end of the court, the Suns are going to run the pick-and-roll and the Lakers are going to try to take away the roll man. Which means Amare Stoudemire. The Lakers want Steve Nash to be the shooter. The problem with that, as Nash showed in Game 5, he hits a lot of shots.
Controlling the boards will matter. How hot Kobe is will matter. The Suns bench will matter. Which Lamar Odom — aggressive or spectator — shows up will matter. Ron Artest will find a way to matter.
But everybody knows that. Everyone knows their roles now. It’s just a matter of who is quicker on the draw.