LOS ANGELES -- Lakers coach Phil Jackson looked at the five players he sent onto the court with 3.5 seconds remaining in the most important game of the season and wondered why in the world Ron Artest was among them. Artest was 1-of-8 from the field. He was shooting 28 percent from three-point range in the playoffs. He was being out-played by a backup, Sasha Vujacic. And less than a minute earlier, he had made what Jackson believed was an unconscionable error that nearly jeopardized the Lakers' title defense.
With 1:01 left and the Lakers up by three points, Artest missed a jumper in the lane but was rescued by Pau Gasol, who came down with the offensive rebound. Gasol passed the ball back to Artest at the three-point-line, so he could pull it out and take time off the clock. But with 20 seconds left on the shot clock and the crowd at Staples Center almost unanimously shouting "No," Artest inexplicably fired up a three-pointer that missed.
The Suns promptly called timeout and Artest staggered to the bench. As he sat down, Kobe Bryant stood up. Artest was left alone with Jackson, scolding him for his decision-making. Jackson thought about benching him for the end of the game. But he reconsidered because, as he put it, "Ron has an uncanny knack of doings things and sometimes it just works out." Such is life with Artest, who over the years has driven coaches and teammates batty at times, but always left them coming back for more. The Lakers, in their first season with Artest, could not understand his appeal until Thursday.
After the Suns tied the score on a banked three-pointer by Jason Richardson -- following missed three-pointers by Richardson and Steve Nash -- the Lakers set up yet another game-winning shot for Bryant. He caught the inbounds pass on the sideline, and as Nash and Grant Hill charged toward him, Artest thought about how aggressive the Suns had been on the glass, throughout the game and the series. "I should throw around my weight," Artest said to himself. He believed that Nash or Hill hit Bryant on the arm, so he reasoned that the shot would be short. On Bryant's game-winners, his teammates often find themselves standing around watching. In this case, it was the Suns hanging out.
The shot was an air-ball and Artest grabbed it right in front of Richardson, flipping it off the glass as the buzzer sounded. The shot was awkward and unglamorous, but it was good for a 103-101 win and a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference finals. Artest rushed into Bryant's arms. He hugged it out with Jackson. The crowd, which had begged Artest not to shoot, rejoiced that he did this time. The scene was vintage Artest, converting enemies into friends in a minute flat. For one moment, the decision to sign Artest last off-season and let Trevor Ariza go to Houston looked like the best thing the Lakers ever did.
"His whole career, his whole life, was about perseverance," said Lakers forward Lamar Odom, who grew up with Artest in New York. "Tonight was a prime example of that." Before the game, Odom told Artest, "This is why you came here," and perhaps the pressure was too great. Artest said he was out of sorts from the beginning, trying too hard to show he belonged. For 47 minutes and 57 seconds, he did not. But in those final redemptive seconds, he inserted himself into a club with Derek Fisher and Robert Horry and all of L.A.'s other masters of clutch. If the Lakers can win Saturday in Phoenix, they will head to the NBA Finals for the third year in a row, on Artest's massive shoulders.
But the Suns, who came back from an 18-point deficit in the second half Thursday, do not look like the type to wilt. This is a team whose coach, Alvin Gentry, threw up in a trash can early in the game but refused to leave the sideline. "It's very similar to college," Gentry said. "Once you get it out of the system, everything's okay. It's like a Friday night frat party." The Suns are going to have to purge this loss as well.
While Gentry was nauseated, Jackson was charmed once again. He has 10 championships, many of which have been possible because of some fortuitous bounce or heave or putback. "My coaching staff says they want to live with me because I'm lucky and hang on," Jackson said. "So whatever, maybe it's luck." If he had pulled Artest, as all of Staples Center surely wanted him to do, perhaps the game goes to overtime and the Lakers lose and their season ends Saturday. But this is why Jackson has 10 titles: he always seems to make the right call at the crucial time, even when he second-guesses it.