If there’s a faster point of redemption in Lakers playoff history, it wasn’t coming to mind, not after Jack Nicholson looked so stunned, Kobe Bryant looked so irritated and Ron Artest looked so confused.
Staples Center had fallen silent after Jason Richardson banked in a three-pointer with 3.5 seconds left, not long after practically the entire crowd begged Artest to stop shooting when he missed two open looks from the left side near the one-minute mark.
But then Artest, of all people, maligned much of the season as Lakers fans pined for Trevor Ariza, carved out the franchise’s latest slice of playoff lore with an improbable play against the Phoenix Suns.
Bryant’s herky-jerky three-point attempt missed badly from the right side with 2.5 seconds left, but Artest beat Richardson to the airball and put in an off-balance follow that banked in as time expired, giving the Lakers a 103-101 victory Thursday in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals.
It was stunning, it was surreal, and it put the Lakers up in the series, 3-2. Game 6 in the best-of-seven series is Saturday in Phoenix.
Artest had made one of eight attempts and scored only two points before the putback.
Bryant ran over to Artest and jubilantly grabbed him. Then Lamar Odom arrived, then pretty much the entire Lakers bench.
It mirrored another sequence this playoff season, Pau Gasol’s follow shot with 0.6 seconds left to close out the Oklahoma City series, but the drama was much thicker, the plotline deeper this time as the Lakers faced a massive collapse.
Biggest shot of Artest’s career?
“Biggest layup,” he said, smiling, correcting the interviewer. “I missed a lot of layups during the regular season. Now I’m missing jumpers and missing layups, but, you know, staying with it.”
And then some, pushing the Lakers to an 8-0 home record in the playoffs and a ninth consecutive Game 5 victory.
Every Lakers fan in Staples Center groaned when Artest hoisted an errant 20-footer with 1:02 to play and then missed a three-point attempt with 22 seconds on the shot clock after Gasol tracked down the rebound.
The Lakers led by three at the time, but Richardson evened up the game after the Suns kept the possession alive with two offensive rebounds.
“That bank shot from three was pretty fortunate too,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said before paraphrasing Shaquille O’Neal from a similar last-second playoff victory. “One good shot deserves another one.”
The Lakers called a 20-second timeout. Even Artest’s coach was wondering why he was back on the court for the final possession.
“I don’t know why I left him in the game,” Jackson said. “I actually questioned it myself when I put him out there on the floor, and there he was. Made the key play.”
Artest quickly went from a mess to the night’s best.
In all his years of pro basketball as both a player and coach, Jackson said he had never seen such a turnaround so quickly by a player.
“No I have not,” he said. “I’m still recovering.”
Artest is shooting poorly in the postseason (39.2%), not that anybody on the Lakers cared about percentages. Or probabilities.
“It was a great moment,” said Derek Fisher, who had 22 points and has made a big shot or two in his career.
The Suns trailed by 18 in the third quarter as Bryant continued to scorch them on the way to 30 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists.
But the Suns rallied behind a four-point play by Jared Dudley and trailed going into the fourth quarter, 78-72.
After Richardson’s three-pointer, the Suns were hoping they did enough to force overtime.
“We got [Bryant] to shoot a tough shot. We just didn’t do a good job of boxing out and coming up with the ball,” Suns Coach Alvin Gentry said. “Those plays like that are the difference between championship teams and really good teams. We’ve just got to make sure we make that play.”
Suns guard Steve Nash had 29 points, 11 assists and a guarantee of sorts.
“They held home court. We’ll go back and do the same and we’ll come back here for Game 7,” he said.
Toward the end of the night, as Artest gave some postgame analysis, a rumble shook the interview room in the underbelly of Staples Center.
“Is that like an earthquake or something?” Artest said.
It was merely an oversized cart being pushed in an adjacent hallway.
The only local temblor of the night had already taken place, courtesy of Artest.
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