Posted May 28 2010 6:17AM
That did not just happen. Ron Artest did not just possibly save Game 5, potentially save the Lakers' season, and certainly save his chances of escaping the angry mob inside Staples Center, all because he was in the right place for one of the worst misses of Kobe Bryant's career.
Ron Artest. The guy who only minutes before had earned a special place in Laker infamy, the player the Suns weren't even bothering to defend a lot of the time, the acquisition who broke up the proven championship roster and would have taken the blame for sure if the repeat bid was dealt a harsh blow Thursday night.
Doubted by his coach, lambasted by his fans, shown up by his opponent, all Artest did was pluck a Bryant airball from the sky and turn it into a layup with eight-tenths of a second remaining to give Los Angeles a 103-101 victory and a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals in what was, in the ultimate perspective, a strange moment even by his standards.
It was his entire season, maybe even his whole tangled career, played out in a flashbulb instant. Artest was in the right place at the right time -- finally a Laker this season after years of thinking about the possibility and running under the basket as Bryant's looping fly ball came down. Thus, redemption, merely a forever plot line for Artest.
Seriously. The Suns had spent the better part of the series begging him to shoot, practically sounding retreat most times he got the ball on the perimeter, and then Artest fired from straight away and missed late in the fourth quarter with the Lakers holding a 101-98 edge. Pau Gasol corralled the offensive rebound. Artest ended up with the ball again and started to set for a 3-pointer, the Suns no doubt secretly cheering their good fortune and the tense home crowd not-so-secretly imploring him to hold off.
He shot. He missed, going to 24.4 percent from behind the arc in the playoffs.
When the Suns capitalized with Jason Richardson's 3-pointer with 3.5 seconds remaining to tie the game, Artest was officially doomed. He would never live this one down. A miss on the final possession of regulation as the Lakers tried to answer would have meant overtime, not defeat, so there was that cushion, and even if they did lose it wouldn't have meant the end of the series, but this latest example of Ron-Ron wackiness showed once and for all L.A. should have kept Trevor Ariza instead.
"I don't know why I left him in the game," even coach Phil Jackson later admitted. "I actually questioned it myself when I put him out there on the floor, and there he was. Made the key play."
As if that was all.
Artest raced from the left side as Bryant fired off a twisting jumper with Grant Hill and Steve Nash close by, was in the lane as the ball came down, and it was like the man said. There he was. Winning the game on a night Artest was 2-for-9 from the field, playing the hero when he was maybe the last guy in the building in contention, and changing the course of history, his more than anything.
"I thought I might throw my weight around a little bit, being one of the heaviest small forwards in the NBA, outside of LeBron," Artest said.
Someone asked him if it was the biggest shot of his career.
"Biggest layup," he replied, eliciting chuckles in the press conference. "I missed a lot of layups during the regular season. Previous teams, I made more jumpers and the layups. But now I'm missing jumpers and missing layups. But, [I was] just staying with it. Staying with it and trying to stay focused. And just trying to play my part and see what happens."
Getting mugged is what happens. First he and Bryant jumped into each other's arms. Then all the Lakers attacked, hugging Artest, batting him on the head, celebrating on the sideline across from the Suns bench as streamers dropped from above and the crowd partied all around them in endless waves of noise and falling sky.
Against all that is logical, counter to everything that had happened, Ron Artest today is the hero who pushed the championship bid forward with his timing and strength and good luck. Seriously. It really happened.
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