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May 28, 2010
Playoff Prospectus
Improbable Heroics

by Kevin Pelton

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at L.A. Lakers 106, Phoenix 104 (L.A. Lakers lead series 3-2)
Pace: 89.2
Offensive Ratings: L.A. Lakers 115.2, Phoenix 113.4

If you were designing the perfect playoff game, Thursday wouldn't be a bad start. Granted, a Game Five of the Western Conference Finals doesn't quite have the impact of a Game Seven or even an NBA Finals matchup, but this was still a pivotal game in this series (aren't they all at this point?) with the championship within sight. Thursday night's action featured wild swings, drama and heroics by two former league MVPs playing at as high a level as ever before. It almost had an overtime too, but instead we had to settle for an improbable finish that echoed the plot of the movie Anchorman: "Today we spell 'redemption' R-O-N."

It was Ron Artest's consecutive misses on a possession inside the final minute that helped leave the door open for the Phoenix Suns to tie the game and later inspired an Inside the NBA debate on which was the more ill-advised attempt. (My vote: The second shot, since at least you could argue on the first that the shot clock was running down and the Lakers weren't going to get a better look.) It was everything we worried might happen with Artest joining the Lakers encapsulated in a single possession.

Then, seconds later, there was Artest in the right place at the right time to scoop up Kobe Bryant's airballed attempt and put it back up and in off glass as the buzzer sounded to win the game. Where else but sports can we see such dramatic highs and lows in a matter of seconds?

The crazy finish overshadowed an impromptu game of "can you top this?" between Bryant and Steve Nash, both of whom were absolutely brilliant. I'll say this for Bryant: If basketball were scored like figure skating or gymnastics, nobody would ever score higher. The degree of difficulty on his shots against a Phoenix zone that was far less permissive than in Games Three and Four was off the charts. Now, for a statistical analyst, part of what puts other players ahead of Bryant is that they are more capable of creating easy shots than Bryant at this stage of his career, and that matters as far as helping their teams win. In terms of sheer breathtaking performance, though, it's hard to beat Bryant at his best.

Granted, Bryant's final shooting line (12-of-27 after the miss on L.A.'s final possession) was unspectacular, and the Suns managed to keep him off the free throw line, but Bryant controlled the game in multiple fashions. He handed out nine assists, grabbed 11 rebounds and even blocked four shots while once again playing the entirety of the second half, carrying a Lakers team that needed every bit of his performance.

Meanwhile, Nash was a virtuoso in his own right. The Lakers tried to defend the pick-and-roll a variety of ways, alternately hedging, trapping, switching and going under the screen. Nash found a way to succeed in every possible permutation. With apologies to John Stockton, if there's been a better pick-and-roll player in the time I've been watching the NBA, I don't remember him.

Down the stretch, Nash mostly saw switches, ending up with Pau Gasol chasing him around the perimeter. At times, Nash can stagnate in these situations, but he was able to get to the basket or else knock down the 20-foot jumper off the dribble. He scored nine points in the final six minutes and 29 for the game, shooting 10-of-14 on two-point attempts and handing out 11 assists against just two turnovers.

It did help Nash that the Lakers were absolutely terrified of surrendering a late three-pointer. On two of the pick-and-rolls in the last five minutes in particular, the help defenders were hugging tightly to their man instead of entertaining the notion of offering support in the paint. (Even then, Nash found a way to make the Lakers pay, completing an old-fashioned three-point play on a foray to the bucket.)

The emergence of Channing Frye, who scored 14 points and drilled three shots from downtown after the break, had a major impact. The Lakers managed to take away the roll man on Phoenix's pick-and-rolls (Amar'e Stoudemire had a relatively quiet 19 points and Robin Lopez was almost completely invisible on offense in his 11 minutes of action), making it crucial that the Suns get the perimeter production.

Phoenix also countered a Lakers defense that was stout in the half court most of the night by speeding up the tempo and getting key early buckets during a comeback late in the third quarter and in the early fourth. The Suns' bench was ineffective in the first half but back to its usual tricks after halftime.

At the other end of the floor, even though the results were not as good as in Game Four, the Lakers had a better gameplan for attacking the zone. Most of the evening, they were patiently willing to spread the zone out and move it from side to side by finding an opening. The result was 28 assists on 38 field goals, their highest assisted basket percentage of the postseason at 73.7 percent and far better than their previous percentages against the zone (47.6 percent and 55.6 percent).

Derek Fisher's masterful job of finding holes in the zone and knocking down shots is worth crediting. Fisher scored 22 points on 15 shooting possessions. The Lakers also got effective play from Sasha Vujacic, newly reinstated to the rotation at guard. Vujacic not only scored five points but also succeeded in getting in the head of Slovenian rival Goran Dragic, who was ineffective in his 13 minutes of play. And Lamar Odom's play was key to the Lakers opening up a lead during the second quarter.

As the Suns seek to stave off elimination at home in Sunday's Game Six, the plotlines in this series have quickly changed. Remember when neither defense could stop the other offense? Both were much more effective in Game Five. Two games ago, Phoenix was winning by going big; now I wonder how much time Lopez will see in Game Six because Frye has become so much more effective. On the L.A. side, the key remains finding a way to slow the pick-and-roll. (Good luck.) On a night where Nash wasn't quite as otherworldly as he was, the Lakers' strategy would probably have been more effective, so we may not see dramatic changes.

Game Six figures to be an excellent game. It will have a hard time, however, living up to the standard set Thursday night.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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