Lakers' 111-103 Game 6 victory over Phoenix Suns illustrates how momentum makes a difference
The Lakers at the time nursed a comfortable 15-point lead over Phoenix and appeared only a quarter away from clinching their third consecutive NBA Finals appearance.
But then what appeared to be an innocuous play involving Lakers reserve guard Sasha Vujacic and Phoenix backup point guard Goran Dragic quickly turned into something devastating. Dragic beat Vujacic off the dribble, drove the lane, stopped at the free-throw line and threw Vujacic off-balance. Dragic's pull-up jumper swished into the net, prompting him to chatter into Vujacic's ear. The two Slovenian natives had an earlier exchange in Game 5, where both ultimately were called for technical fouls. But the one assessed to Vujacic in Game 6 proved to be more devastating.
Laker fans can debate all they want whether Vujacic flailing his arms and throwing an inadvertent elbow into Dragic warranted him overly dramatizing the situation and falling down to the ground. You can argue all you wantthat the play didn't warrant a flagrant foul-1, particularly because Vujacic had his back turned on Dragic when he raised his arms. You can also point to other areas of the game, such as the Lakers' mostly non-existent defense, Pau Gasol's disappearing act and the team's two-of-nine clip during the Suns' fourth-quarter run as reasons Game 6's outcome had remained in question. But the Vujacic-Dragic incident in the Lakers' 111-103 Game 6 Western Conference finals victory over the Suns presents a backdrop beyond the fact they're advancing to the NBA Finals for the third consecutive year, are squaring off against the hated Boston Celtics and have the chance to avenge their 2008 Finals loss.
It served as a teachable moment that illustrated Phil Jackson's contention all series that seemingly small things eventually affect the larger outcome. It happened in the Lakers' Game 3 loss when a poor rebounding effort spurred plenty of Suns run-outs and three-pointers to widen the gap. It happened when Ron Artest's ill-advised three-pointer with 22 seconds remaining on the shot clock in the final minute of Game 5 led to Jason Richardson banking in a tying three-pointer after the Suns grabbed two offensive rebounds. And it happened when Artest redeemed himself by sneaking past Richardson, grabbing Kobe Bryant's missed shot and converted on the put-back to give the Lakers a Game 5 victory.
This time, the chippy display between Vujacic and Dragic served as that moment. Though Bryant's 11 fourth-quarter points ultimately sealed the win, the Lakers nearly squandered the game because of how Vujacic's flagrant foul with 11:18 remaining in the game spurred the Suns' momentum. Aside from the Phoenix crowd rising to its feet for the remainder of the game, Dragic converted on both free throws and then drove past Vujacic on the following play and then scored on a right-handed layup. The sequence marked a seven-point effort that slashed the Lakers' lead to 91-80.
That just marked the beginning of the Suns' 16-4 run that cut the Lakers' lead to 95-90 with 5:46 remaining. Frye hit a three-pointer off an inbounds pass. Stoudemire drove baseline and dunked over Gasol. Stoudemire converted on two free throws after drawing a foul on Lamar Odom. And Stoudemire scored on a layup after Dragic made a pass around Gasol in the lane, cutting their deficit to five.
Fortunately for the Lakers, they had other players show how their own little contributions can positively affect the outcome. Despite nursing a bloodied finger, Bryant's 37 points came off seemingly tough jumpers, a 10-of-11 effort at the free-throw line and several drives to the basket. Fisher's two critical jumpers in the fourth quarter as well as drawing an offensive charge against Stoudemire illustrated his continual embracing of his utility role. Ron Artest's 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting, hustle plays and even calming Vujacic down on the sideline showcased how Artest, of all people, can properly channel his motivations, in this case feeling slighted by Phoenix Coach Alvin Gentry for giving him open outside shots. And Andrew Bynum's 10 points on three-of-five shooting and improved mobility on defense demonstrated his commitment to fighting through the torn cartilage in his right knee.
But despite those efforts, seemingly small and negative traits could magnify in scope against Boston, which has saved its best play for the postseason. Who knows how Vujacic's act will affect his rotation and relationship with teammates, even if he had shown promise before that incident. Who knows if Gasol will turn around his uncharacteristic low-level contribution in time for the Celtics' rugged front line of Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace. And who knows if the the Lakers could afford to survive an up-and-down series against the Celtics, much like they did against the Suns.
The Lakers should feel confident heading into the 2010 NBA Finals, as the team has mostly played at its peak during the postseason. But let the latest performance serves as a stark reminder that something as small as an inadvertent flagrant foul can suddenly erase the hard work put in beforehand.
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Top photo: Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic pleads his case with the referee after being called for a flagrant foul when striking Suns point guard Goran Dragic in the fourth quarter of Game 6 on Saturday night. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.
Middle photo: Lakers guard Kobe 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 Game 6 on Saturday night. Bryant had 11 points in the fourth quarter and a game-high 37 points. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times.