LOS ANGELES // The Lakers' voluminous play-off lore is almost overstuffed with last-minute heroics. In the past decade alone, Robert Horry, Derek Fisher and - of course - Kobe Bryant have all hit dramatic, game-winning shots that will be remembered in Los Angeles for ages. Ron Artest realises he was an awfully unlikely candidate to join that list in the final second of game five of the NBA's Western Conference finals.
That's when the Lakers' only newcomer made everybody at Staples Center forget about his terrible game with an offensive rebound and a layup to beat the buzzer and the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night. Artest banked home the winning shot after rebounding Bryant's missed three-pointer, and the Lakers held off the Suns 103-101 to take a 3-2 series lead in the series. Artest's basket completed a two-for-nine shooting night redeemed by that one supremely heady offensive rebound that pushed the Lakers to the brink of their third straight NBA finals.
"I wasn't playing my game from the beginning," Artest said. "In the second half, I was finding my way a little bit, made some good passes and good steals and got some rebounds. So I guess that aggressive play can carry over into that last possession." Game 6 is tonight in Phoenix, where the Lakers can clinch the chance to play for their 16th championship - or the Suns can hold serve in a series featuring five wins for the home team.
Bryant had 30 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists for the Lakers. He also wrapped Artest, who scored just four points, in a jubilant bear hug after Artest homed in on Bryant's miss and threw up an unattractive shot. It looked beautiful going through the net. "It means a lot for him," Bryant said. "I think for him emotionally, it's a big boost ... Once I released the ball, I saw Ron sneaking in. I was just hoping that he got it off in time."
Phil Jackson, the Lakers coach, said he wasn't even sure why he had Artest in the game after the veteran forward missed consecutive open shots earlier in the final minute, drawing the ire of the home crowd with each brick. "He has an uncanny knack of doing things, and sometimes it just works out," Jackson said. "He just has a knack for being around crucial plays." Jason Richardson had banked in a straightaway three-pointer with 3.5secs left to tie it for the Suns, who clawed back from an 18-point deficit in the second half. Phoenix got a superb game from Steve Nash, who had 29 points and 11 assists while fighting for the chance to go to his first NBA finals.
"Just when we thought it was OK, in overtime, we lose," Nash said. "So that's life. We have to take a lot of positives from tonight, and realise we have to go home and play well." Derek Fisher scored 22 points and Pau Gasol had 21 points and nine rebounds for the Lakers, who rebounded from consecutive losses in Phoenix with their best defensive performance of the series, forcing 15 turnovers and holding Phoenix to their lowest point total since the first round. The Lakers also improved to 8-0 at Staples Center in the post-season.
Lamar Odom had 17 points and 11 rebounds for the Lakers, who led 101-96 on his layup with 1min 38secs left before Nash hit a jumper and Artest missed twice. "His whole method since we were small is, 'I'm going to outwork you,'" said Odom, who played AAU ball with Artest as a teenager in New York. "'I'm going to bang you until you don't want no more.' His stubbornness is the reason why he took that three ? because he just missed one. That's part of his game. That's why he's a great player, and that's why he's a great defender. It's just something you have to live with."
"We just didn't quite finish the game," said Alvin Gentry, the Suns coach. "I have no complaints. They played great. We hung in. We did a great job against Kobe on the last shot, just didn't come up with the rebound. To me, it's a great effort by us, and they know we're not going to go away." * AP