LOS ANGELES – Ron Artest stumbled into Los Angeles Lakers playoff lore with one remarkable bank shot to beat the Phoenix Suns.
Artest rambled into the lane and beat the buzzer with a wild shot after rebounding Kobe Bryant’s miss, and the Lakers edged the Suns 103-101 on Thursday night to take a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference finals.
Bryant had 30 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists for the Lakers, but the improbable hero of Game 5 is the only new player on the roster of the defending champions, who are one win away from the NBA finals.
“I missed a lot of layups during the regular season,” Artest said. “I’m just staying with it and trying to stay focused and play my part, see what happens.”
Something incredible happened: Artest’s basket completed a 2-for-9 shooting night, an otherwise awful performance redeemed by one supremely heady offensive rebound.
Jason Richardson banked in a straightaway 3-pointer with 3.5 seconds left to tie it for the Suns. Phoenix clawed back from an 18-point deficit in the second half with a superb game by Steve Nash, who had 29 points and 11 assists.
Bryant then missed a difficult shot from the sideline, but Artest collected the rebound and raised to his tiptoes while throwing up a hideous shot that somehow went in. Artest, who missed two open jumpers just a few seconds earlier, grabbed Bryant in a joyous bear hug while the Staples Center crowd went nuts.
“I thought Kobe got fouled on the shot, so I figured it was going to be a little short,” Artest said. “And it was short.”
Game 6 is Saturday night in Phoenix, where the Lakers can clinch the chance to play for their 16th championship.
“Everything is OK,” Nash said. “We can’t knock a great effort. I think we deserved this game.”
Led by Nash’s stirring second-half effort, the Suns hacked away at Los Angeles’ lead throughout the fourth quarter. Phoenix trimmed its deficit to 95-94 when Nash converted a three-point play and then fed Amare Stoudemire for a layup that barely beat the shot clock with 2:52 left.
The Lakers led 101-96 with 1:38 remaining, but Nash hit another jumper and Artest missed twice, the home crowd yelling in frustration with each open brick.
“(Artest) has an uncanny knack of doing things, and sometimes it just works out,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “He just has a knack for being around crucial plays.”
The Suns had three looks at a 3-point shot in the final seconds, but two missed before Richardson missed so badly that he banked it in from a long step behind the line.
“We just didn’t quite finish the game,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. “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.”
The Lakers already won on a last-second layup earlier in the postseason, when Pau Gasol sent home the Oklahoma City Thunder with an offensive rebound and a score in Game 6 of the first round.
Derek Fisher scored 22 points and 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 mediocre shooting – yet the Suns still came agonizingly close to handing Los Angeles its first home loss of the postseason.
The Lakers improved to 8-0 at Staples Center, where they’ll play Game 7 on Monday night if the Suns hold serve in a series that has featured five wins for the home team.