It couldn’t have happened a game too soon. Ron Artest, a strong defender all year for the Lakers, and throughout his NBA career, finally found his offensive range against the Suns in the closeout game of the Western Conference finals.
Artest was the last-second hero in Game 5, if you can classify four points and two-for nine shooting heroic. But Artest banked in the game-winner, off a Kobe Bryant air ball, with no time remaining.
In Game 6, he was the leading support to Bryant's 37 points, which made Kobe the unquestioned hero. As usual.
Artest’s offensive barrage, which had been non-existent all season, arrived just in the nick of time. Otherwise, the Lakers-Suns series might have gone the full seven games, with a strong possibility that the Suns, and not the Lakers, would have faced the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.
While everyone is focused on the upcoming rematch between the Celtics and the Lakers, I am still confounded by the Lakers’ Western Conference finals with the Suns. I've felt the same way about their entire season.
I know Lakers’ fans will cringe when they read this, but I believe the Suns had the better all-around team. L.A. had the most incredible player to step on an NBA court since Michael Jordan. Fortunately, one of their players, who had been cold all year at the offensive end, suddenly caught fire.
Ron Artest delivered just when they needed it.
The Bryant-Artest combination was enough to overcome the better all-around Phoenix team, which had fought back from huge double-digit deficits to nearly pull out Games 5 and 6.
The 2009-2010 Lakers are a true enigma.
Not only are the Lakers inconsistent from game to game, they seem to embrace inconsistency from half-to-half and from quarter-to-quarter. One quarter they are on fire. The next quarter they are burnt-out embers.
In both Games 5 and 6, the Lakers had nearly 20-point advantages. But the Suns either tied or pulled to within three points as the Lakers fell asleep at the wheel in the fourth quarter.
The blame can usually be placed at the feet of the Lakers’ bench, except for sixth man Lamar Odom. With Andrew Bynum playing on a gimpy knee, the Suns’ starters would have had a distinct advantage over the Lakers’ starters were it not for Bryant. Kobe can whittle away any advantage that an opposing team has, and Odom provides a spark coming off the bench.
However, the rest of the Lakers’ bench was so far inferior to the Suns’ bench that I have to believe the Suns had the better all-around team.
The same is true for the Boston Celtics. Of course, that alone does not guarantee a series win as long as the Lakers have a healthy Kobe Bryant on the court.
In a long series, it is so vitally important for the bench to maintain a lead. Except for Bryant, you cannot expect the other starters, who have been sitting for seven or eight minutes, to return to a game and immediately pick up where they left off.
So, if the bench has let a 17-point lead to slip down to eight or nine points, it will probably slip even further until the returning starters get up to speed.
But the Suns, and even the Celtics, have benches that not only maintain a lead, but add to it. When a team consistently gets that kind of production from its bench, I have to take that into account when matching them against the Lakers.
Inconsistency hasn’t been limited to the Lakers’ bench, either. The starters have had their share of struggles as well. I n Game 5 against the Suns, for example, Pau Gasol had 21 points and nine rebounds while sixth man Odom had 17 points and 13 rebounds.
But then in Game 6, Gasol only managed nine points, while Odom chipped in just six. Even Bynum, playing on one leg for all intents and purposes, outscored them with ten points. To his credit, Odom pulled down 13 huge rebounds, five on the offensive boards.
Along comes Ron Artest, who had averaged just 11 points per game in the regular season and 10.6 points in 15 playoff games. He put up 25 points to cover Gasol and Odom's offensive inconsistencies.
That’s 14 more points than Artest usually scores. The Lakers won by eight. If you discount the two personal fouls on Bryant (three out of four) in the last 13 seconds, the Lakers only win by five, 108-103.
Do the math. Phoenix by nine.
Although the scoring from Gasol and Odom only disappeared in Game Six, Shannon Brown disappeared for the entire series, except for one or two spectacular dunks. That just won’t get it done against Boston.
And if it wasn’t for Bryant's spectacular series and Ron Artest's scoring in Game 6, L.A. wouldn’t have gotten it done against Phoenix.
Luke Walton and Josh Powell were non-entities in the conference finals, which was expected. The only bench player other than Odom to be anywhere near effective was Jordan Farmer.
Although no Goron Dragic by any stretch the imagination, Farmar had a decent showing in the Phoenix series.
Speaking of Dragic, you had to love the way he left Sasha Vujacic in the dust. As for Vujacic’s mental spasms in Game 6, I am not only surprised that Phil Jackson hasn’t suspended him. I am astounded that Jackson hasn’t contacted the INS to have Sasha deported.
Well, I guess you know best, Phil. But if it had been me…