Coming into Game 6 with a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference Finals in Phoenix, the Lakers had been fantastic in close-out games, winning eight of nine chances.
Make that nine of 10, thanks in no small part to Kobe Bryant, whose game-high 37 points included a bevy of dagger jumpers from the perimeter that put a bow on perhaps the best all-around series of his playoff career.
“What can you say about Kobe?,” wondered Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “There’s an intense game going on, and you almost have to laugh. I thought we played great defense on him, but he just made shot after shot.”
A terrific first three quarters from the Purple and Gold produced a 17-point lead heading into the fourth that L.A. had to scratch and claw to hold onto, but they did just that, earning a 111-103 win that sent the franchise to its third straight NBA Finals.
The final dagger was a hotly-contested jumper from, who else, Bryant, who rose over Grant Hill’s fully extended arms to drop a deep right wing deuce that put L.A. up seven with 34.2 seconds to play.
“I just had to create a little bit of space,” explained Bryant, who patted Gentry on the butt after the ball went through. “I had a good look. Looks like a much tougher shot than it actually is. Got my legs underneath me, I was able to knock it down.”
“For that, there is no answer,” Gentry said. “I’ve always thought he was the best player in basketball. He didn’t do anything in this series against us to make me think otherwise. As a matter of fact, he probably solidified my thought process as to he’s the best basketball player right now.”
Bryant finished the series with averages of 33.7 points, 8.3 assists and 7.2 rebounds, missing triple-doubles in Games 3-5 by a total of one assist and four rebounds while propelling L.A. to its ninth straight series’ victory in the Western Conference Finals.
No. 24 didn’t do it alone, of course.
A game after his buzzer-beating tip-in layup at STAPLES Center, Ron Artest was terrific throughout four quarters at US Airways Center, producing a season-high 25 points on only 16 shots, nailing four three-pointers to go along with three steals.
“Ron was spectacular for us tonight,” said Derek Fisher. “His offense really set a tone for us early. It’s key to have more than just Kobe really being the guy attacking on the offensive end.”
Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol both struggled considerably from the field (5-for-21), but were effective defensively, clearing 19 total rebounds as L.A. won the battle of the glass 41-31.
Fisher added 11 points with three assists, while back up Jordan Farmar produced eight points and five assists in 16 minutes off the bench, making 2-of-3 triples.
It all combined to deliver a Western title that the Lakers barely celebrated; they have bigger things in mind, after all.
And who else would they rather play than the Boston Celtics, winners in six over the Orlando Magic, and the last team to beat the Lakers in a playoff series with the 4-2 win in the 2008 Finals?
The Finals don’t start until Thursday, June 3, at STAPLES Center, giving the Lakers a few days to collect themselves and their bodies, before a grudge match that couldn’t look more fun on paper.
Until then, your numbers:
3 Straight trips to the NBA Finals for the Los Angeles Lakers.
10 Three-pointers made by the Lakers, including four from Ron Artest, three from Kobe Bryant and two from Jordan Farmar, in 24 total attempts. The Suns made nine threes in 26 attempts.
14 Offensive rebounds for the Lakers, including five from Lamar Odom, as L.A. won the battle of the glass 40-30.
29 Free throws taken by the Lakers, one more attempt than Phoenix, for L.A.’s first advantage at the foul line all series.
37 Points for Kobe, who nailed a series of dagger jumpers in the second half to clinch the Western Conference for L.A.