Dissecting performances by Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest in Lakers' 111-103 Game 6 victory over Phoenix
Bryant has since been the model of consistency this postseason, averaging 33.7 points on 52.1% along with 8.3 assists and 7.2 rebounds in the Western Conference Finals. Artest has experienced glimpses of hot shooting nights and recently redeemed himself with a game-winning putback in Game 5 against the Phoenix Suns.
But in the Lakers' 111-103 series-clinching Game 6 victory over the Suns on Saturday, both players fully illustrated the danger they pose to opposing teams. Bryant scored 37 points, concluding a series in which he nearly recorded a triple-double three times. Artest scored 25 points on 10 of 16 shooting, including four of seven from three-point range, overcoming a postseason performance that entailed shooting below 50% in 10 of the 16 playoff games, and a shot selection that induced hand-wringing from Coach Phil Jackson, the media and fans alike.But on the night when the Lakers clinched their third consecutive NBA Finals appearance, a meeting with the Boston Celtics and a chance to redeem their 2008 Finals loss, Bryant and Artest played at peak level. Below is a breakdown of plays they made that helped the Lakers win Game 6.
Breaking down Bryant's performance
First quarter, 10:39 - 10:33
With Bryant manning the point on the near-side perimeter, he dribbled between his legs, went left and then pulled up for a jumper over Phoenix forward Grant Hill, giving the Lakers a 4-2 lead.
First quarter, 8:18 - 8:15
Bryant at the top of the key drove left past Suns point guard Steve Nash, confronted help defense from Hill and forward Channing Frye and weaved past them as he arched a bank shot. Bryant drew contact on the play and converted on the free-throw. This sequence happened moments after trainer Gary Vitti treated his bloody finger.
First quarter, 6:40 - 6:31
As the Suns played man-to-man, the Lakers tried spacing the floor so that Phoenix no longer could clog the paint. Lakers forward Lamar Odom dribbled out the far end and passed the ball up top to Lakers guard Derek Fisher. He immediately swung the ball to Bryant on the near side. Phoenix guard Jason Richardson marked Bryant but gave him enough space to shoot a 26-foot three-pointer. Bryant took the bait and swished the shot, breaking a tie into a 22-19 lead.
First quarter, :58 -:47
After Lakers guard Shannon Brown passed the ball to point guard Jordan Farmar near the top of the key, Lakers center Andrew Bynum set a screen for Bryant on Richardson. Bryant then cut across the free-throw line in hopes of receiving an entry pass from Odom. He instead passed the ball at the top of the key to Farmar as Bryant established post position on the left block. Upon receiving the pass, Bryant turned around and pulled up for a 19-foot jumper to give the Lakers a 37-34 edge.
Second quarter, :35 - :12The Lakers swung the ball around the perimeter from Artest to Odom and then to Bryant on the near side. Bryant drove past Phoenix forward Jared Dudley along the baseline, but Frye stepped in to help by knocking the ball loose. Artest recovered the ball and kicked it out to Bryant from 28 feet out. Bryant made Nash pay for giving him the space, as his long-distance shot swished into the net and widened the gap to a 65-53 Lakers lead.
Third quarter, 8:33 - 8:18
After Lakers forward Pau Gasol fed an entry pass to Bryant in the far post, Bryant received a double team from Nash and Richardson. Bryant jumped in the air and kicked the ball out to Artest on the near-side perimeter. Hill immediately marked him, so Artest connected with Gasol on the left block. Meanwhile, Bryant had curled around Gasol at the top of the key and penetrated toward the near side. As soon as Lakers forward Amare Stoudemire marked Gasol, he fed the ball up top to Bryant. In triple-threat position, Bryant ran a screen-and-roll with Gasol off Richardson, dribbling right, weaving past Stoudemire and burying a 25-foot three-pointer with six seconds remaining on the shot clock. The basket increased the Lakers' lead to 72-57.
Third quarter, 1:54 - 1:45Bryant went one-on-one with Suns forward Jared Dudley in a beautiful sequence that defines the Black Mamba's court awareness, ball handling and footwork. He drove left, stopped in midstep, dribbled behind his back as he switched hands and then picked up his dribble at the free-throw line. Bryant pump faked and then inched into Dudley to create space as he pulled up for the mid-range J. His elevation and stroke appeared perfect as the shot dropped into the net for a 87-69 lead.
Third quarter, 1:18 - 1:08On the next possession, Bryant continued to showcase his quick feet and shooting stroke. As Odom directed the offense from the far side, Bryant flashed up the right block to the perimeter. After catching Odom's pass, Bryant set in triple-threat position and then immediately drove left. Bryant created separation from Dudley to drive to the lane, but Phoenix reserve guard Leandro Barbosa immediately shut off the lane. With Bryant having a sliver of separation from Dudley, he pulled back for a fade-away jumper, giving the Lakers an 89-72 cushion.
Third quarter, :46-:41Another possession, another Bryant jumper. Prompting more questions on whether he's actually human, Bryant on the far side drove right, picked up his dribble, pump faked on Dudley and then pulled up for a fall-away jumper just as Frye came into help. Once Bryant's shot dropped in the basket for a 91-74 Lakers lead, TNT cut the cameras to show a Suns fan with his head hanging down, apparently both amazed and frustrated with Bryant's heroics.
Fourth quarter, 4:38 - 4:34The Suns went on a 16-4 run to bridge the gap to 95-90, sparked by Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic's Type 1 flagrant foul with Suns guard Goran Dragic. But Bryant wouldn't allow that momentum boost to decide the game. With Artest directing the offense on the near side, Bryant flashed up top. As soon as he caught the ball, Bryant pump faked against Dudley, dribbled toward the right block and then released a floater just over Frye for the 97-90 lead.
Fourth quarter, 2:03. 1:59
The Suns dwindled the lead to 99-96, but Bryant continued to make plays. Upon receiving a pass from Odom on the far end, Frye and Hill bunched up on Bryant. But Bryant curled around and then pulled up for a 21-footer, extending the Lakers' lead to 101-96.
Fourth quarter, :38-:35
This sequence put the game away for good. With Hill guarding Bryant on the far-side perimeter, he drove left, picked up his dribble, pump faked and then pulled up for a 23-foot jumper to give the Lakers a 107-100 lead and marked his ninth point in the last two minutes. Bryant demonstrated an airplane motion and then tapped Phoenix Coach Alvin Gentry on the shoulder for good measure.What this means
Bryant enters the NBA Finals playing at his best, averaging 33.7 points on 52.1% along with 8.3 assists and 7.2 rebounds in the Western Conference Finals. This serves as a sharp contrast to the 27 points he averaged in the regular season as well as the 23.5 points on 40.8% shooting he averaged in the Lakers' first-round matchup with Oklahoma City Thunder.
Obviously it doesn't take a basketball expert to realize that Bryant's return to normalcy has correlated with his improved health. During that stretch, many questioned whether we were witnessing the beginning of Bryant's demise. While I understand Bryant has used such comments as motivation because people doubted his abilities, most of the opinions expressed raised reasonable questions about when will it come to the point that Bryant's ridiculous skill set, insane work ethic and constant treatment on his injuries frankly won't be enough to overcome the bumps and bruises.
That time will eventually come, but for now Bryant clearly shows it's not anytime soon. The described plays in this post clearly demonstrate that there wasn't much Phoenix could do to limit Bryant. If any other player had attempted the tough shots Bryant did, I'd justifiably wondered why those shots were taken. But with Bryant, he can make those. His court awareness, familiarity with his defender and his quick first step have proved instrumental in giving him a sliver of space to operate a shot. Frankly, that's all Bryant needed.
The concerns regarding his 41.5 minutes per game Bryant averaged in the Conference Finals have proved unfounded. He has scored at least 30 points in 10 of the last 11 games and has taken over games when needed. What's most entertaining about watching Bryant is how much he's remained a dominating force in the game while still getting others involved. He certainly provided that same presence when he became more of a facilitator, if you want to call it that, at different parts this season, but Bryant's latest performances seem easier to quantify to the casual fan. And though the Lakers will have issues to deal with Boston's frontline and matching up in an intense rivalry, it's comforting news for Lakers fans to know Bryant is currently playing at his best.
Breaking down Artest's performance
First quarter, 10:21 - 10:15
Suns center Robin Lopez passed the ball to Phoenix guard Jason Richardson as he cut toward the far-side perimeter, but Artest swiped the ball. As Artest ran in transition, Lopez and Richardson trailed behind. Lopez tried blocking Artest's dunk, but he slammed it home for the 6-3 lead.
First quarter, 9:22 - 9:17
With Phoenix playing in a 2-3 matchup zone, Bryant fed a pass to Lakers forward Pau Gasol just below the near-side perimeter. Both Suns guard Grant Hill and Richardson slid over on each side, so Gasol passed the ball back up top to Bryant. With Richardson still set on Gasol and Suns point guard Steve Nash marking Bryant, Artest remained wide open on the far side. Bryant quickly darted a pass to Artest, who sank the three-pointer for 12-10 lead.
First quarter, 8:43 - 8:34
Artest swung the ball around to far corner after Lakers guard Derek Fisher cut across the wing. Fisher then fed an entry pass to Gasol as Artest cut across the lane. Gasol immediately threw a pass into the paint where Artest had strong position over Lopez. His left-handed layup gave the Lakers a 14-12 edge.
First quarter, 5:03 - 4:56
After grabbing a defensive rebound, Odom led the break and connected with Gasol on the right block. After driving left toward the lane, Frye slightly flashed up to help with Stoudemire. That left Artest open along the far baseline. After receiving the ball, he dribbled once, posted up and then made a 10-foot fade-away bank shot, widening the Lakers' lead to 27-23.
First quarter, 3:00 - 2:47
Odom ran the break again after grabbing a defensive rebound, with Artest and Bryant running the far side and Gasol and Lakers point guard Jordan Farmar running along the near side. Odom attempted to drive the lane, but Nash cut off his penetration. But with Phoenix just settling back on defense, Bryant remained open on the far-side perimeter. Nash immediately covered Bryant as he got the ball, but he quickly swung the ball around the perimeter. After Farmar received the pass on the near side, he passed to Artest, who had just cut along the baseline to the near corner. Frye gave Artest the space, and he unsurprisingly took the bait. The shot went in as the Lakers retook the lead at 30-29.
Second quarter, 5:24 - 5:11
Once Gasol received a pass from Bryant on the near side, he posted up in the lane, causing Suns forward Amare Stoudemire, Lopez and Hill to collapse inside. Meanwhile the rest of Phoenix's 2-3 zone stretched out with Richardson and Nash trying to cover areas marked by Fisher at the far corner, Artest on the near-side perimeter and Bryant at the top of the key. Bryant rotated over, while Artest shifted toward the top of the key and Gasol fed him a bounce pass. He immediately passed to Fisher, who then fed an entry pass to Bynum. After Artest's pass, he cut across the lane and darted out to the near-side corner. Meanwhile, Bynum fed the ball back to Fisher as he curled toward the top of the perimeter to throw Phoenix's defense off balance. After dribbling into the lane, Fisher kicked the ball out to Artest, who sank an open three-pointer for a 54-45 Lakers lead.
Second quarter, 4:26 - 4:07
After Fisher picked Gasol's pass from the far post, Bryant cut out from the right elbow to the near-side perimeter. After pump faking, he leaned in toward Stoudemire in hopes of drawing contact on his three-point attempt. But no foul was called and the shot rimmed out. Meanwhile, Artest inched past Frye in the paint to grab the rebound and attempt a putback. The shot hit off the rim, however, and Frye cleaned the glass. Artest didn't give up on the play, attempting to swipe the ball away just as Frye raised his arms. Just as he began to dribble, Artest stole the ball and converted on the left-handed layup to give the Lakers a 56-47 lead.
Third quarter, 5:28 - 5:20The Suns had just gone on a 8-2 run, but the Lakers immediately answered. Bryant and Gasol ran a high screen-and-roll on Richardson, with Bryant driving to his right. But with Nash instantly picking him up, Bryant passed the ball to Fisher on the far-side perimeter. Fisher's three-pointer rimmed out, but Artest positioned himself inside to grab the board. His putback gave the Lakers a 76-65 lead.
Third quarter, 3:41 - 3:35With Gasol getting fouled inside, Artest inbounded the ball from the far-side perimeter to Farmar near the top of the key. With the Suns in their 2-3 matchup zone, Richardson marked Farmar while Nash covered Odom up top. That left Artest open on the far side. Once Farmar passed off to Artest, Stoudemire gave him space to shoot. Artest took the bait and gave the Lakers an 81-67 advantage.
Third quarter, 2:35 - 2:24
As Farmar passed the ball up top to Bryant, Artest penetrated the wing. Bryant looked for Artest, but he hadn't completed his cut, so Bryant passed instead to Farmar on the near-side perimeter. With six seconds left on the shot clock, Farmar took the open-three pointer, but the shot rimmed out. Once Odom grabbed the rebound over Frye, Artest jetted from the far post up toward the free-throw line and then cut inside. Odom immediately connected with Artest, who jumped in the air and laid in an underhanded shot with his left hand. The shot caused Lakers assistant coach Frank Hamblen to crack a smile as Phoenix called timeout and trailed 85-67.What this means
Artest entered Game 6 claiming Phoenix disrespected the Lakers, with Nash's proclamation that the Suns would extend the series to seven games and Suns Coach Alvin Gentry leaving Artest open on the perimeter. Upon hearing about Artest's remarks, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson pointed out matter-of-factly that he implemented the same strategy when the Lakers played Houston in the 2009 West Semifinals. It's not necessarily a sign that doubts Artest's ability to make shots. It's really just a strategy that plays to the percentages and indicates Phoenix's understanding that Artest can take ill-advised shots that fall outside the context of the offense.
Given Artest's motivation and his desire to build off his game-winning putback in Game 5, it was good to see him approach the game the right way. He didn't jack up shots to prove a point. He didn't overcompensate in hopes it would create more looks. And he didn't appear to allow his frustrations to get the better of him.
I may be over-analyzing this because it is Artest after all, but his performance in Game 6 illustrated that his good shooting night went beyond his shots just dropping in. Artest created looks based on hustle plays. He knocked open shots because he created open looks based on off-ball movement and building a rhythm. And he actually worked within the offense by passing to the right man and filled the empty space on the floor. It's taken him a long time, with some maddening moments in between, but it appears Artest has finally figured it out.
-- Mark Medina
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Photos, from top: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant drives down the middle of the Phoenix Suns defense for a layup in the second half of Game 6. Middle photo: Bryant shoots over the defense of Suns forward Grant Hill to increase the Lakers' lead to seven points with less than two minutes to play in the fourth quarter. Bryant had 11 points in the fourth quarter and a game-high 37 points. Bottom photo: Lakers forward Ron Artest, who finished with 25 points, pulls down a rebound in front of Phoenix's Grant Hill, background, and Channing Frye, left, in the fourth quarter. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times