Western Conference Finals Recap - Game 6
(1) L.A. Lakers 111, (3) Phoenix 103 - Lakers win series, 4-2
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The old saying applies in many realms of human endeavor, especially the world of NBA basketball.
After the Phoenix Suns pushed the Los Angeles Lakers to the final seconds of Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, it was reasonable and logical to assume - within a narrow context - that Game 6 would witness a bounce-back moment for the underdogs. The Phoenix team that didn't show up for Games 1 and 2, disappeared beginning in Game 3 and remained in the shadows. The upstarts in this Western showdown found and maintained a physicality and fierceness that allowed them to compete on even terms with the defending world champions. Even though they lost Game 5, the Suns defended better and fought harder, giving themselves and their fans confidence that they could return home to the U.S. Airways Center and force a Game 7 on Memorial Day. Indeed, as Phoenix came back to its home building for Saturday night's clash with the Lake Show, there was a sense among the hoops cognoscenti that the home team would remain unbeaten in this series and force a deciding duel in Los Angeles on Monday night.
There was just one problem with the above scenario, connected to the immediate form and flow of this entertaining and lively series: This game wasn't played in a narrow context. It was played with the knowledge that a corner had been turned, a threshold crossed, a moment of peril survived.
Yes, Phoenix might have had good reason to take charge in Game 6, given its strong showing in Game 5 on Thursday, but one must realize that when Ron Artest converted the putback basket that gave the Lakers a close-shave victory and a 3-2 lead in this series, the defending champs - with a knife to their throat - lived to tell about a close brush with potential disaster. The Lakers didn't dominate in Game 5, but they actually did something even better for a team that expects to win championships: They won while playing well below their normal standards. They had a near-death experience but still got the result they wanted.
Sure, Phoenix came closer to toppling the Lake Show in L.A., but the Suns didn't earn the chance to close down this series at home. All they got for their exertion on Thursday was a series deficit and the knowledge that they'd need to win two straight games in order to advance to the NBA Finals. This reality was keenly felt in Game 6, and it had much to do with the Lakers' close-out conquest.
The Lakers have made more NBA Finals than any other franchise in professional basketball. The Suns, on the other hand, have been to the Finals exactly twice, in 1976 and 1993. These franchises breathe the same air differently in late May and early June. The Lakers expect to play in the Finals and win titles; on the other hand, making the Finals would represent an incredibly rare and special achievement for the Suns, whose history as a franchise has been snake-bitten ever since the organization lost a coin flip to the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969, a coin flip that deprived the Suns of Lew Alcindor. If the man who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had worn a Phoenix uniform, the last 40 years of pro basketball could have been entirely different. Instead, the Lakers remained the gold standard of NBA excellence while the Suns were stuck in the middle of the Western Conference. The DNA of these teams is comprised of different building blocks, and Game 6 affirmed this truth in full.
The Lakers stormed the palace gate in Phoenix, liberated by their Game 5 escape and motivated by the nearness of the finish line. With Ron Artest throwing down 25 points and Kobe Bryant scorching the nets on his way to a game-high 37 points, L.A. rolled up a 91-74 lead after three quarters. Yes, Phoenix super-sub Goran Dragic scored eight quick points early in the fourth quarter to bring the Suns within single digits, but down the stretch, Kobe hit massive shots while Phoenix forward Amare Stoudemire committed dumb fouls and participated in empty offensive possessions.
The Lakers' championship identity and postseason chops came into view on Saturday. The Suns' lack of familiarity with postseason triumph robbed them of the edge they needed to force a Game 7.
The Lakers are now 7-1 in non-first-round playoff series against the Suns, and 3-0 in Western Conference Finals series.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
By: Matt Zemek
Pro Basketball Fans Staff Writer
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