Lakers:103 Phoenix:101.Lakers Lead 3-2.Ron Artest Make The Game Winning Buzzer.
With his arms half raised for a second, Artest looked around shocked. Then as he turned, Artest saw Kobe Bryant and wrapped his arms around him as the two began jumping up and down in jubilation.
Following a short 3-point attempt by Bryant, Artest outmuscled Jason Richardson to the rebound and wound up banking in the putback at the buzzer as the Lakers took a thrilling 103-101 victory over the Suns in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals Thursday at Staples Center.
"Biggest layup," said Artest of whether this was the biggest shot of his career.
"I've very happy for [Ron]," said Bryant, who had 30 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists. "But we'll leave it here and go up there and try to win one."
An otherwise forgettable stat line for Artest -- four points, five rebounds and three steals -- now has the defending champions in prime position to return to the NBA Finals as Los Angeles took a 3-2 series lead and can close out the series Saturday in Phoenix.
For the record, when winning Game 5 of a best-of-seven series, the Lakers are 42-7 all time.
Steve Nash, who had 29 points and 11 assists, drilled key basket after key basket and continued to find his teammates. At one point down the stretch, he had nine of the team's 11 points.
"I was just determined to try to win," said Nash, who helped the Suns rally with a 19-10 run before Artest's game-winning shot. "It was a crazy game."
But Bryant and Derek Fisher, who had 22 points, answered backed with timely buckets of their own.
Whittling away at the Lakers' 18-point lead, the Suns were down just 101-98 in the final minute. After Pau Gasol's missed dunk with 20.9 seconds left, Nash brought the ball up and fired a 3-pointer. Long. Richardson took his shot. Long. Then Channing Frye controlled the rebound and gave it right back to Richardson, who banked in a 27-footer to tie the game with 3.5 seconds left.
"I knew he was going to make it," Frye said.
Then Artest came to the rescue.
"Bottom line," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. "We didn't box Ron out. We let him walk right in and get the rebound."
Artest did have his fair share of highs and lows in the final minute, however.
With his team up by 101-98 and a fresh shot clock, Artest fired an ill-advised 3-pointer with 22 seconds on the clock and under a minute to play. The fans shouted "NO!" Then on their next possession, the Suns wound up tying the game.
"He redeemed himself right there," Shannon Brown said.
The moment may have been especially poignant given the heroics of Trevor Ariza in last year's playoffs and the constant debate of whether signing Artest was the right move.
"I always remind him that this is why he came here," Lamar Odom said. "You know, to be in a position like he was in tonight.
"His whole career, I mean his whole life, was about perseverance, sticking with it. Tonight was a prime example of that."
After the game, the Suns tried to stomach the defeat.
"We got to swallow this one," said Amar'e Stoudemire, who had 19 points and four rebounds.
"Once it went in," Jared Dudley said, "it was deflating. It stung. It hurt.
"But by the time we got in the locker room, we huddled together and we realized we have to put this one behind us and just win Game 6."
Added Leandro Barbosa, "we can't put our head down."
To build a lead that swelled to as many as 18 in the third quarter, the Lakers had to make adjustments.
After succumbing to the Suns' zone in Phoenix, it seemed the Lakers figured it out. They penetrated inside and worked inside and out. That helped them go on a 16-5 run in the third quarter.
Gasol, who had 21, and Odom (17 points and 13 rebounds) were the beneficiaries, flashing and scoring in the paint time after time.
But once again, the Suns' bench came up big in the waning minutes of the third and at the start of the fourth. After scoring just two points in the first half, the Suns' bench dropped 31 for the game. In the third, Dudley had a four-point play and Frye had a pair of 3-pointers as the Suns closed out the quarter on a 16-4 run and trailed 78-72.
For most of the game, the Lakers' defense was on point.
The play that was a microcosm of that was in the third quarter when Bryant pounded Stoudemire's layup into the glass. And there was more of that in the second period.
"Defensively," Bryant said. "We were terrific."
Bryant had himself a big game after getting picking up two fouls in the first two minutes and 35 seconds.
In the second period, Bryant had 13 point and drained three consecutive 3-pointers. That onslaught was part of a 13-0 run, lifting the Lakers to a 41-25 lead with 6:14 left in the second period.