LOS ANGELES – In the final minute of a game the Lakers tried their best to squander, Pau Gasol retrieved an offensive rebound and kicked it out to Ron Artest, who wasted little time in hoisting a three-pointer.
It was Artest's second miss in about five seconds, and easily his most egregious of the night. At that point, he was then 1 for 8 from the field, and 0 for 3 from behind the three-point line.
"I'm a better player than my numbers are speaking of right now," said the first-year Laker, whose arrival was supposed to endow the team with defensive toughness for the playoff run. "There's a new system for me. I'm trying to somehow, you know, make it work for the team. So that's why I wanted to take that shot."
The Lakers had a three-point lead.
"I was hoping to go up six," he said.
There were 21 seconds remaining on the shot clock.
"It's not always a good shot," he said. "But nobody's perfect."
The Suns got the rebound and called timeout. And as Artest trudged toward the huddle, Phil Jackson considered benching him. "He wanted to redeem himself," said Jackson. "I understand that. ...You kind of feel for the player, but at that time of the game, it's not a good play."
As it happened, the Suns had three chances to tie. First, Steve Nash missed a three. Jason Richardson missed another. But, finally, with 3.5 seconds remaining Richardson got it back and banked the tying shot off the glass from 27 feet, completing their comeback from 18 down.
Even more improbable: Artest was still on the floor. "I don't know why I left him in the game," said Jackson. "I actually questioned it myself."
Of course, with 10 championship rings, these questions don't exactly leave him wracked with self-doubt. There's a reason Jackson is making $12 million per and sleeping with the owner's daughter. There's a reason why the billionaire Russian who owns the Nets is dying to have a vodka with him.
"Maybe it's luck," he said, quickly adding that a glance at the stat sheet would reveal that "we did most things right: turnovers, rebounds, blocked shots."
In fact, the last play went pretty much as designed, which is to say that Kobe Bryant had the ball in his hands with a chance to win the game.
"I thought Kobe got fouled on the shot," said Artest. "I figured it was going to be short. And it was."
"I didn't know it was going to come up that short," said Jason Richardson, who was watching the ball when he should've been watching his man, Artest.
"He just got through," said Richardson. "I looked and turned and he was already heading over that way."
Artest caught the airball as if it were an assist and banked it in with .8 seconds left.
Then his teammates mobbed him. It was the happiest the Lakers have been all season. Artest's shot will go in the Laker annals along with other great game-winners - Magic's skyhook against the Celtics, Robert Horry's jumper against the Kings and Derek Fisher's three against San Antonio.
What had been a bad game is now forgotten.
"A great moment," said Fisher, "How much more fun of a basketball game can you be in? ...We're very happy for Ron, you know, because Ron's been asked to sacrifice a lot of his game to really try and fit in."
He wants to fit in. He wants to be loved. That's why he put up the ill-advised three - to redeem himself. Well-intentioned, but stupid. Turns out, he just needed a little bit of luck and savvy.
"Was it the biggest shot of your career?" he was asked.
"Biggest layup," he said, noting that he used to take more jumpers. "Now I'm missing jumpers and missing layups."
Still, he's going to the Finals. Even when the game about to go into overtime, I saw no way for the Suns to win. I heard all this nonsense when the series was tied at 2 games. So what? Oklahoma City got two home games off the Lakers. Denver was tied with L.A. after four games last year. Sure, the Suns could win on Saturday. There's still no way they beat the Lakers in a seventh game here.
It's worth mentioning that Derek Fisher, who is 36, had 22 points. Bryant was an assist short of a triple-double: 30 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists. Nash was typically spectacular with 29 points and 11 assists.
But if you're looking for a culprit, check Amar'e Stoudemire's line: not the 19 points, but the measly 4 rebounds. Lamar Odom had 17 points and 13 boards. Through five games, Odom has outrebounded Stoudemire 52-32. And Stoudemire - who absolutely can't go left - wants to be a max player? Buyer beware.
In the meantime, says Ron Artest, famously suspended 73 games for his charge into the stands six years ago, "I just got to continue to play." That is to say he'll continue to be passionate, fierce, inscrutable, boneheaded and, more than likely, redeemed.