Taking It by the Horns
The Lakers’ playoff past, deep and striking, already is crammed full with a 15-point comeback in a desperate fourth quarter, a staggering fadeaway fling with 0.4 of a second left and, back a bit further, a rookie point guard putting up 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists while playing center.
And now this, unimaginably yet indelibly -- an improbable steal by Smush Parker, an equally implausible play by Luke Walton and, on top of it all, two last-second shots by Kobe Bryant.
Instead of merely beating the Phoenix Suns, the Lakers pushed it a bit further Sunday, stunning them in regulation and again in overtime for a 99-98 victory and a 3-1 lead in their first-round series in front of a delirious, disbelieving Staples Center crowd.
Bryant had 24 points, four of which will be immediately tacked onto Laker lore -- a high-arcing layup with 0.7 of a second left in the fourth quarter and a 17-footer over two defenders that beat the overtime buzzer.
Parker, cast adrift by the Suns last season, set up Bryant’s first shot by stripping Steve Nash of the ball in the waning seconds of regulation, a feat topped only when Walton tied up Nash near the end of overtime, helping create Bryant’s other shot.
Game 5 is Tuesday in Phoenix. Only seven teams have come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a best-of-seven NBA series.
“I have played a lot of playoff basketball, and I have never had a game quite like this,” Bryant said. “With our backs against the wall, seemingly out of it, and us just battling back and getting this ‘W.’ I told them we matured about 10 to 15 years today.”
The locker room was awash in emotion after the game.
Lamar Odom, eyes reddening, didn’t know whether he should be laughing or crying. Parker wasn’t as ambivalent -- he was crying.
Bryant addressed the team as he scanned the room, pointing out what each player did individually to turn what looked like certain defeat into confounding victory. He offered particular support to Parker, noting he was having an off game before securing his own spot in team history.
Parker had two points on one-for-10 shooting before making a three-pointer with 7.9 seconds left in regulation to cut the Sun lead to 90-88.
Then came The Steal.
Boris Diaw inbounded the ball near the top of the Sun three-point line after a timeout, but Nash slipped, Parker poked the ball loose at the sideline near midcourt and then tapped it to Devean George, who moved upcourt and fed Bryant on the wing. Bryant maneuvered around Raja Bell and floated a layup over Diaw to tie it, 90-90.
“We all knew the ball was going to get to Nash because he’s, what, a 90% free-throw shooter for the season,” Parker said. “Coach said we want to foul but make a play for the ball. That’s exactly what I did.”
With the Suns ahead in the final seconds of overtime, 98-97, Nash again ran into trouble in almost the exact same spot, trapped along the sideline by Odom and Walton just inside midcourt. Nash, who later called the play “pretty physical” and said he thought he “got bumped a little,” also said he heard teammate Diaw call a timeout. But referees ruled that Walton had tied Nash up and called a jump ball with 6.1 seconds left.
Walton won the tip after initially whiffing on it and knocked the ball to his left, toward the scorer’s table, where Bryant snapped it up, dribbled across the court, and elevated over Diaw and Bell from above the right side of the free-throw line.
He raised his left fist. A moment later, he was mobbed.
“I knew Luke was going to control the tip,” said Bryant, who took only 14 shots Sunday, eight fewer than Nash, and made nine. “I was just going through my calculations, looking at the clock, and just played the moment over in my head before I got the ball, thinking about how much time I would have to operate. Once I got the ball, I just took my time and got the look I wanted.”
Bryant has hit the same shot from the same spot so often in practice and during individual summer workouts when nobody is watching that, he said, “It felt routine to me.”
Afterward, when the tension was finally allowed to escape, owner Jerry Buss and his son Jim, a team vice president, gave out hugs and handshakes outside the locker room.
Down the hall, Sun Coach Mike D’Antoni seemed to forget his team had lost.
“Everything we talked about we did,” he said. “That’s why we won. Or, jeez, that’s why we came close. I guess I’m in denial.”
It was hard for the Lakers to believe too.
“I have been involved in a lot of wild ones, and that one was right up there,” Coach Phil Jackson said.
Both teams struggled in the first half. The Suns were again disrupted from their push-the-tempo scheme, while the Lakers hemmed and hawed without Bryant, who played only 57 seconds in the second quarter because he picked up his third foul with 11:08 left.
But Bryant made his shots, twice, and the Lakers have never lost a playoff series with a 3-1 lead -- 26-0 overall to this point.
Somewhere out there, the Clippers are beckoning, holding an identical 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven series against Denver, although Bryant didn’t want to hear much about it ... yet.
“It’d be pretty crazy,” he said. “But we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves now.”