Posted May 30 2010 2:29AM
PHOENIX -- The clock was running down, the game was coming to a boil and the air was being sucked out of the building like somebody had inserted a vacuum hose. The stands were jumping, the crowd was roaring and another game was being compressed into something that would fit into the palm of your hand.
These are the times when you can almost hear the ball ticking. When some players run from the moment as if it had steel jaws that were getting ready to slam shut. When legs get heavier, when muscles get tighter, when the basket gets smaller.
The moment came, as it often does, to Kobe Bryant with two minutes to play on the biggest day so far of the season. All through the fourth quarter of Saturday's Game 6, the Suns had been putting the heat on the Lakers, an 18-point lead was down to three and it was beginning to feel like an acetylene torch on the back of their necks.
Bryant took the ball on the right wing, dribbled, turned, lifted off and knocked down a 21-footer over the outstretched arms of Grant Hill and Channing Frye that made 18,422 inside US Airways Center throw back their heads in submission.
That was just a warmup act. With 35.2 second remaining and the nettlesome Suns still pricklier than a cactus, he did it again. This time it was a 23-footer right in front of the Phoenix bench that soared over the fingertips of Hill and finished off the underdogs for good.
After he made the shot, Bryant turned, smiled, reached out to pat Suns coach Alvin Gentry on the butt and then spread his arms like wings and made like an airplane on his way back down the court.
So Kobe has the Lakers flying back to the NBA Finals for the third consecutive season, seeking to defend last year's title, renewing the age-old rivalry with Boston and maybe the only question left to ask is how far up the ladder of all-time greats he has climbed?
Dare we say? If the Lakers knock off the Celtics, Bryant will have five rings, just one less than Michael Jordan.
"I'm not going to get into that," Gentry said. "I might have to work for the Bobcats some day. I'm not saying that, no.
"I'm saying at this time right now he's the best player in basketball. And I don't think it's even close."
This is a Lakers team that rode the annual roller coaster of emotion and drama through the long regular season and was thought to be vulnerable when the upstarts from Oklahoma City had the series tied up at 2-2 in the first round of the playoffs.
It's a Lakers team that had made tremendous strides in terms of execution at both ends of the court and confidence and was able, at times, to flex their overwhelming muscles in these Western Conference finals with Phoenix.
The uncomfortable newcomer Ron Artest was finally welcomed with open arms into the bosom of Laker World when he caught that falling star airball by Bryant and scored the putback bucket to win Game 5. Then he exploded like a firecracker in a steel bucket with 17 of his 25 points in the first half of Game 6 when the Lakers needed a lift. The perennially maligned Derek Fisher hit two more big buckets and drew a huge offensive foul on Amar'e Stoudemire in the fourth quarter.
And yet in the end -- as it always seems to be -- it was about Kobe being Kobe. Jordan certainly made more than his share of winning shots, clutch plays. But before it's over, Kobe might make more of them and make them more spectacularly. In short, the subject is now open for serious debate.
"We guarded him," Gentry said. "I thought Grant was going to block the shot. That was a fallaway 3-pointer with a hand in your face, off-balance. You know, that's who he is. That really is who he is."
He's a guy who looks like he could drive a tractor-trailer through the eye of a needle and not even scrape the antenna on the sides.
"You know, I just had to create a little bit of space," Bryant said. "I had a good look. It looks like a much tougher shot than it actually is."
That's how you talk when you can do almost everything except turn the Gatorade into wine.
"I've said it before, he's one of the very few guys that I've seen play myself that, you know, literally can will the ball into the basket," said Fisher.
He finished with 37 points and six rebounds. He hit the 30-point mark five times in the series, pulling into a tie with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (75) for second place on the all-time playoff list of 30-point games. He trails only Jordan. He averaged 33.7 points, 8.3 assists and 7.2 rebounds in the series.
Now the Lakers make their 31st appearance in the Finals, the Celtics their 21st and the NBA's Hatfields and McCoys meet for the 12th time with a championship on the line. Perhaps most important to this showdown is Kobe gets to a chance to avenge the 2008 Finals lost to Boston and, oh, how Kobe loves vengeance.
Almost as he loves this situations when a game or a series or a season is on the line.
"When he made that shot, I told Grant, 'Good defense,' " said Gentry. "And he said to me, 'Not good enough.
"Hey, I've known him all his life, since he was about 16 years old. I've always been a big fan of his. I always thought he was the best player in basketball. He didn't do anything in this series to make me think otherwise. As a matter of fact, he probably solidified my thought process."
Another game, another series, another close-out, another hammer dropped, another rung up the ladder.
Kobe being Kobe. He's getting close to the top.
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