Ron Artest's history, both on and off the court, is checkered at best. No one can deny that he's got a special combination of size and athleticism (emphasis on the former). He's lauded as a terrific defender, and is known for his ability to play well on both sides of the ball. He's won the defensive player of the year award and made the All-Star game once.
But he's also Ron f***ing Artest. Ron-Ron. Crazy Pills. The guy who was suspended an entire season for going into the stands and fighting with fans in Detroit. The guy who was suspended the next season for asking to get time off because he was tired from promoting a music record that wasn't even his. The guy who admitted to drinking cognac at halftime of games during his rookie season. He's played on 5 teams, and at least 3 of the previous 4 were more than happy to see him go once the time came for him to move on. Even in a season in which he's barely raised the controversy meter, any time Artest has been pointed out, it's been for the wrong reasons: The release of the aforementioned cognac story, his Christmas Day concussion from falling down stairs at his house(largely suspected to have been caused by inebriation), or just his general inability to bring much on the offensive side of the ball over the past 3 months.
Last night, the stage was set for Ron Artest to be on the wrong side of yet another story line. Late in game 5, with the Lakers NURSING (yes, it needs that much emphasis) a 3 point lead, Artest threw up an ill advised fall away 20 footer with 7 seconds left on the shot clock. Since the shot clock was winding down, it wasn't a horrible decision, but his taking of the shot was met with internal groans for most of Lakers nation, because we all knew it wasn't going in. However, the Lakers pulled down the offensive rebound, and the ball was passed back out to Artest to reset the offense, only to watch Ron-Ron throw up a bat-shit crazy 3 pt attempt with 21 seconds left on the shot clock. He missed, the Suns rebounded, tied the score on their own crazy play, and Artest looked to have cemented his place as public enemy #1 in Lakerland.
But you all know how the story ended. With 3.5 seconds left, Kobe Bryant received the ball and threw up an insanely tough shot over two Suns defenders. He hit nothing but air. Well, air, and Ron Artest's hands. Artest barreled through the lane from the opposite 3 point line, grabbed the ball away from Jason Richardson, and banked the ball high off glass to win the game as time expired, flipping his own personal script in this game from nightmare to storybook ending in 1.1 seconds. Judging by his reaction, and the reactions of his teammates, it was easily the best and biggest moment of his career.
That reaction speaks volumes, by the way. Not to be smug or anything, but the Lakers know a thing or two about game winning shots. That Kobe Bryant guy (you know, the one with the airball) happens to be pretty good at them. He's hit them throughout the regular season, and throughout his postseason career as well. The Lakers have the most memorable collection of postseason game winners this (well, last) decade. Kobe's game 4 winner against these very Suns 3 years ago; Robert Horry's 3 vs. Sacramento; Derek Fisher's .4. After each one, the Lakers were jubilant, but they've never celebrated like this. Artest was mobbed along the same sideline Kobe Bryant came so perilously close to stepping on during that final play. These guys are champions, and yet there was almost as much passion celebrating this winner as there was in celebrating last year's championship. The pundits can talk all they want about how Kobe treats his teammates, and how the Lakers lack team chemistry, but Kobe was the first person to get to Artest and embrace him like Ron Ron had just cured cancer, and the rest of the team followed suit. They didn't celebrate Pau Gasol's mirror image play nearly as much, and it's not because Pau isn't well liked. The Lakers knew how much that shot meant to Artest, and they let him know how much he means to them. It's clear that the Lakers couldn't be happier for Artest, and he clearly couldn't be happier himself.
But there were 47 other important minutes of basketball in this game, and the way it went down speaks both good and ill for the Lakers going forward. The good? For most of the night, they seemed clearly in control. They attacked the infamous zone far better than in previous games, by passing the ball to one side of the zone and then decisively cutting through the area of the lane recently vacated as the zone tried to shift. They (relatively) limited their 3 pt attempts, making a visible effort to have shot attempts come from the inside. Derek Fisher continues his own personal redemption/"Fuck the doubters" tour. The defense was coming through, holding the Suns to 72 points through 3 quarters. Also, the Lakers were the ones fighting and muscling their way to offensive boards, nearly matching the Suns' 44% ORR from Game 4 with a 41% mark of their own. Considering the Suns out-performed the Lakers in nearly every other offensive category, and considering exactly how the win was obtained, the Lakers' offensive boards were clearly the key to this victory.
The bad news? For the 3rd straight game, it was the Suns who executed down the stretch in the 4th quarter. The Lakers simply could not get stops when they needed them, mainly because Steve Nash went bonkers in the final period. It was interesting to see Nash close the game looking for his own shot (and finding it very well with 9 points on 5 shots) while Kobe Bryant continued to look for teammates and let them take advantage of Phoenix's shading towards the Mamba. Kobe only scored 7 points in the entire 12 minutes of 4th quarter burn (on 3-9 shooting) but he did create 3 dimes, and a fair share more of hockey assists. Kobe's stat line was still incredible, once again just one assist off a triple-double, but he was not in God mode as he has been for most of this series.
Also on the bad news front, Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar have reverted back to providing absolutely nothing off the bench. This was partially made up for by Sasha Vujacic getting some burn and doing well with it, but the Lakers bench production can not be 95% Lamar Odom. The Lakers won the 1st two games handily because Farmar and Brown didn't stink it up, but those two guys, more than anybody else on the team, look like they've never seen a zone in their lives. Meanwhile, the Suns bench (despite an awful 1st half) continues to ramp up their production, mostly on the back of the rejuvenated Channing Frye. Frye was the Suns 2nd best player last night.
The Lakers also failed to reduce those all important Suns explosions. The Suns responded to Laker high points in the 2nd and 3rd quarters with runs of 13-4 and 16-4 respectively, and the 4th quarter saw the Lakers comfortable 8 point lead evaporate with a 9-2 spurt. You simply can't afford to go multiple possessions in a row not scoring on the Suns, because their offense seems to improve exponentially as your offense continues failing to produce.
All in all, this was a strange game. On the one hand, it looked like the Lakers had this well in hand for most of the night. On the other hand, you look at the box score and wonder how they pulled a victory out at all. Which makes it all the more fitting that it ended the way it did. In a game in which not a whole lot makes sense, the ending came right out of your typical sports cliche. The location makes it all the more fitting. Ron Artest's storybook redemption was all Hollywood.