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Lakers 103, Suns 101: This One's for Queensbridge

First things first: this series isn't over. Granted, it might feel that way to Suns fans tonight. Just as their team was reaching out to steal Game Five, a guillotine blade came out of nowhere to chop off their hand, not only foiling the crime but leaving them bleeding and miserable. The wound won't be easy to cauterize. All the same, the Suns this evening came achingly close to something neither they nor the Lakers have managed in the Western Conference Finals, which is winning a road game. The Lakers still need one more victory either in Phoenix, where they were deeply uncompetitive in Games Three or Four, or back in Staples in a Game Seven. Their ability to do so isn't a given.

This night and this moment, however, belong to the Lakers and their fans. They belong, above all, to the complicated, infuriating, occasionally brilliant figure of Ron Artest. In a span of less than 60 seconds, the Ronster's bizarre wiring went full circle. With 56 seconds to play and the Lakers up three, he jacked up a brainless three-point attempt early in the shot clock. The Lakers could have burned off a big chunk of the time left in the game and forced the Suns' comeback attempt to the brink, but Ron's lobotomized play put the outcome in jeopardy. When Jason Richardson banked in a three of his own with five seconds remaining - and Laker fans, let's not complain that it was a lucky shot... none of us minded when Kobe Bryant banked in his game-winner against Miami earlier this year - it seemed like Ron's brainlock could be the tragic inflection point of the Lakers' entire season.

But before we could even really process what was happening, Ron repaired all the damage he'd done, and then some. His hustle, his strength, his strange psychological makeup that allows him to compartmentalize and disregard anything that happened 30 seconds earlier - all of these gears meshed and sent Artest powering to the rim to recover Kobe's miss and toss it back into the hoop as the clock went to zero. His basket was technically worth only two points, but nontechnically was worth so much more. It gave the Lakers a death-defying 103 to 101 win, a three-two series lead and a reprieve from a flood of "Trevor Ariza would never have done such-and-such" articles. Thanks for everything, Ron. Now please don't take a three like that ever again.

It's fitting the Lakers prevailed on an offensive rebound and second-chance points. That theme unified their entire offensive performance tonight. Phoenix was by far the worst defensive rebounding team to make the playoffs - in the regular season, they were 29th in the league in defensive rebounding rate - and the Lakers in Game Five exploited that structural weakness. The Lakers didn't shoot well, only 46% on twos and 29% on threes, but they rebounded 40% of their own misses, leading to 18 second-chance points. The big man threesome of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom kept working, kept banging, kept tipping the ball until either they or their teammates could make a shot. Meanwhile: Amare Stoudemire, three defensive rebounds in 35 minutes played. J'accuse, Amare!

The Lakers also did a fine job at the free-throw line. Once again the Suns enjoyed an advantage in FTAs, but the Lakers were the ones with the sure touch on their freebies. A scant three misses out of 23 attempts by the Lake Show tonight. Phoenix honked nine of their 29 throws, including a pair of misses by the typically automatic Steve Nash. Had Nash converted those two, or had J Rich not missed two of his own three attempts, Game Five could easily have swung the Suns' way.

I do think it's time to retire the "Lakers can't function against the zone!" storylines. They now look perfectly comfortable against it. The ball movement tonight was smart and assured, and there were deft cuts by the bigs down the lane and along the baseline. One adjustment that was made was to position Gasol around the free-throw line instead of in the low blocks, and have him flash toward the hoop when the Suns' attention drifted toward the perimeter. This forced the Phoenix D to scramble, which opened up passing lanes and rebounding angles. Having scored 1.23 points per possession (PPP) in Game Four and 1.18 PPP tonight, L.A. appears no longer baffled by the Suns' zone, if indeed they ever were.

Kobe didn't produce the extraordinary shooting performance that we've seen from him often in this series. He did score 30 again, but he needed 28 shots to get there (using the term "shots" to include free-throw possessions). It was a good scoring night, if not a great one. Where he truly excelled was in stage-managing the attack (nine assists), contributing critically on the boards (11 reebs) and with active defense (four blocks). It was a well-rounded night of work.

Weirdly enough, the Suns seem not to know how to stop Derek Fisher. This is a strange problem for any team to have, and it doesn't say flattering things about Nash's defense. Fish took 15 shots, which often would be a bad sign for the Lakers, but he just dropped in make after make on his merry way to 22 points. Eleven of the Fish Man's points came in less than four minutes (LOL WUT?) in the first period. Hey, don't look at me... I just report this stuff.

As for the Phoenix offense, it again made the Lakers look not much like the elite defensive unit they were for most of this season. Don't be fooled by the Suns' modest game total of 101 points. They had the ball only 86 times, so their scoring efficiency was perfectly healthy. They couldn't get much going in the first half, but in the second they caught fire from behind the arc and drew a goodly number of whistles. Nash searched for his own shot more than he's done in the series, and turns out, it's a good look on him. He scorched the Laker D for 29 points on 21 shots. He didn't, though, get enough help from either Richardson (who missed all five of his three-point attempts before his late bank-in) or his backup Goran Dragic (outplayed by Slovenian arch-nemesis Sasha Vujacic).

Also problematic for the Suns is how their offense seems to get turnover-happy at Staples. They turned the ball over on 17% of their trips tonight, and in three games at Staples in this series they have a poor turnover rate of 16%. In Games Three and Four, they coughed the rock up on a relatively tidy 8% of their possessions.

Onward we go to Game Six on Saturday night. In this same situation last year, the Lakers pounded the Denver Nuggets to wrap the conference finals on the road. It would certainly be my preference that history repeat itself and that the Suns not darken our door again until next season.











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