Steve Nash may have verbally guaranteed a victory for Game 6 to extend this series to its 7th game after his Phoenix Suns lost a tough Game 5 at Staples Center. But as always, Kobe Bryant would much rather do something about a win than make empty promises. He took over the game in the 4th quarter to lead the Lakers to a 111-103 win to clinch their 3rd straight Western Conference Championship and their 31st NBA Finals appearance. The Lakers are also now 9-1 when closing a series on the road for the past 2 seasons.
After a brain numb of a decision to throw an arm at Goran Dragic at the top of the 4th quarter with the Suns about to roll over on an 18-point deficit, Sasha Vujacic's actions ignited the crowd that's been silenced since the 2nd quarter, and more importantly, fired up Dragic and the Suns to cut that lead down to 3 points. But try as they may, Kobe and the Lakers just wouldn't be denied of their much-anticipated rematch with the men in green.
Bryant put on a shooting exhibition like no one since a guy wearing #23 and against all kinds of duress from the Sun defense. Kobe made it look so easy that the final 5 minutes of the game seemed like practice for Bryant in his preparation for the Finals. You know the game has been put to bed when he extends both arms to his side and pretend he's flying up high around everybody all the way to the Laker sideline.
Kobe finished the game with his 5th 30+ performance of the series with 37 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and only 1 personal foul. He had 2 fouls within the first 3 minutes of Game 5, but he made sure he doesn't get himself in foul trouble in Game 6 just in case the unexpected happens. As we all saw, it did.
But Bryant wasn't the only shining star in this closeout game. Just 2 nights after he shot the game-winning layup, Ron Artest followed that up with his best shooting performance of the post-season with 25 points by shooting 10-of-16 from the field and 4-of-7 from behind the three-point line. He had 17 points in the first half because the Suns stuck to their plan of letting him shoot those wide-open shots than anybody else, and did he ever made the Suns pay for "disrespecting" his shooting ability. But Ron also provided some brilliant defensive plays including stealing the ball for a layup after Channing Frye had coralled a defensive board.
Pau Gasol had his worst scoring night of the series with just 9 points on 2-of-9 shooting and 7 rebounds. He just looked overwhelmed defending Amar'e Stoudamire's quickness on offense and his physicality on the boards. Well, he's gonna have to shake that off for the Finals considering the type of team the Lakers are going to face. Gasol's never been a physical player, but he has shown before that he can rise to the occasion when he needs to. Hopefully, he can do it again against Boston.
Andrew Bynum had a better game with 10 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 block shots after scoring just two free-throws on Thursday. He was more fluid and more active rather than laboring and dragging. He's going to be one of the keys in the Finals, so he better spend all the days leading up to Game 1 wisely But the long layoff should do his knee some good.
Being a steady source of veteran toughness and leadership, Derek Fisher continues to be the guiding force of this Laker team. He had 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting, but those shots came when the Lakers needed clutch shooting from other than Kobe. During every timeout, he gives his team some pep talk and always the first to cheer good effort and good plays out of guys like Jordan Farmar, Vujacic, and Artest.
Lamar Odom may not have a good shooting night (3-of 12 for 6 points), but he was a steady force on the boards and team defense for the Lakers. His length, speed, and ball-handling abilities were again a headache for Alvin Gentry and the Suns. The Lakers were at their best bringing down that zone defense whenever he's on the floor because of his ability to get into certain positions on the floor and see open teammates when he drew the defense in.
By the way, that was a brilliant adjustment by Phil Jackson of using Lamar to get him positioned from behind the zone defense to force the Suns to collapse on him to get Pau open underneath the basket or guys wide-open around the perimeter.
Overall, the Lakers did an excellent job of making the Suns' "girlie" defense ineffective almost the entire game because they stuck to their plan and kept pushing which allowed them to methodically build an 18-point lead in the second half. Defensively, the Lakers didn't allow Stoudamire to attack the hoop and made sure the three-pointers for the Suns were either covered or challenged. And for the second straight game, they allowed Nash to shoot rather than share the ball.
Nash finished with 21 points but only 9 assists. Then again, he only played for 30 minutes which is unusual considering they couldn't afford to lose another game. Stoudamire lead the Suns with 27 points but most of his points came from the free-throw line (13-15). The Laker defense swarmed him for much of the game until the momentum shifted in Phoenix's side in the final quarter. He was 7-for-20 from the field.
After shooting almost 42% in Game 5, the Lakers up their percentage to 47% (39-83) in Game 6. They also shot 41.7% (10-24) from downtown while holding the Suns to 34.6% (9-26). The defending champs also outrebounded Phoenix 41-31, including 14-8 in offensive boards. Both teams turned the ball over almost evenly with 10 for the purple and gold and 12 for the Suns. Fast break points goes to the Lakers 6-2, and points in the paint favored them as well 32-26.
In the end, the Lakers' size, talent, experience, and resilience overcame the sudden change of tide in the game in the 4th quarter. They did enough on the defensive end and on the glass to prevent the Suns from stealing Game 6. Unexpected things will almost often happen during the course of a playoff game. One bad play or decision always has the gravity to do just that. The most important thing is the Lakers have a knack to come up on top when the final buzzer sounds.
Now about those Celtics...
Game 6 highlights:
Kobe with Craig Sagers after Game 6:
Western Conference Championship trophy presentation: