PHOENIX – Was that Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen out there punching Phil Jackson's ticket to yet another NBA Finals, No. 13 to be precise?
No, but Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest Saturday sure pulled off a nifty imitation of Batman and Robin, who produced the first six of Jackson's 10 rings.
That No. 24 Bryant wears for the Los Angeles Lakers is quite appropriate. With each passing oh-my-gosh bucket -- the Game 6 clincher against the Phoenix Suns a fallaway, off-balance jumper with Grant Hill's hand in his face -- Bryant looks one better than No. 23.
"He's one of the few players I've ever seen who can literally will the ball into the rim,'' teammate Derek Fisher said.
And Artest? He wears No. 37, not No. 33, the ace defender by trade turned into an offensive force. "The Lord was with him,'' Jackson said.
For sure, the basketball gods are smiling on the NBA, which will serve up the Lakers in the Finals for the 31st time against their nastiest rival, the 17-time champion Boston Celtics. Edition No. 11 -- the Celtics are 8-2 vs. the Lakers, including 2008's latest whipping -- came about because Bryant and Artest tag-teamed the Suns from start to finish of a 111-103 victory.
In his quest for a fifth ring, Bryant was beyond Jordanesque.
This was written on the Suns' whiteboard before the game: "In the end, it's not going to matter how many breaths you took, but how many moments took your breath away.''
They all belonged to Bryant Saturday, not the Suns. He scored 37 points, 13 in a bust-away third quarter and 11 in the final three minutes to hold off a frenzied Phoenix rally that sliced an 18-point lead to three.
His backbreaker came with 34 seconds left with the Lakers clinging to a 105-100 lead. After Bryant drilled the jaw-dropping shot right in front Alvin Gentry, he came over and patted the Suns coach.
"Hey, I've known him all his life, since he was about 16,'' said Gentry. "I've always been a big fan of his. He knows that. He probably solidified my thought process as to he's the best basketball player right now.''
Better than MJ?
"No, I'm not going to get into that. I might have to work for the Bobcats (Jordan's team) someday.''
After this series, it's time to crank up the debate again. Bryant was otherworldly -- at both ends of the court. He shot 52.1 percent and averaged 33.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, 8.3 assists and 41 minutes.
"There's an intense game going on,'' Gentry said, "and you almost have to laugh at what he does. I mean, I thought we played great defense on him. He just made tough shot after tough shot.''
Artest, a notoriously poor three-point shooter, made one bomb after another, the zone-buster the Lakers have looked for since Game 3. All this after his put-back at the buzzer won Game 5.
He was 10-for-16 from the field, including 4-for-7 from long range, and finished with 25 points. He set the offensive table for the Lakers. Bryant offered up dessert.
Artest didn't ignore his duties on the defensive end, either, forcing Jason Richardson into 3-for-7 shooting and coming up with three steals.
"We stayed poised and played hard,'' Artest said. "I think you saw us relaxed and playing together.''
That was Jackson's message before the game. Don't get too emotional, he told his team. They didn't. They got cold-blooded, not to mention cold-hearted.
Sasha Vujacic of the Lakers and Goran Dragic of the Suns are fellow Slovenians who have played together on the national team. The bad blood between them reached a boiling point early in the fourth quarter when, following a Dragic drive around Vujacic, the Lakers guard knocked Dragic to the floor with a flying elbow to the chin as the two came down court.
Vujacic was assessed a flagrant foul one and nearly cost the Lakers the game, because Dragic spearheaded a comeback that almost forced a Game 7.
The stupid elbow came with the Lakers up 15. Even Jackson thought the Suns were "pretty dead in the water'' at the time.
No matter. Bryant came to the rescue. But not Vujacic's. Asked what he thought of Vujacic's flagrant foul at the time, Bryant said, "I'm gonna kill him.''
And now? "I'm still gonna kill him.''
So now it's back to the Finals for the Lakers. They've been there seven times in Jackson's 10 years in L.A. And Jerry Buss is considering a pay cut for the 12 Million Dollar Man?
That looks so absurd now, and will look even more absurd if the Lakers, with home-court advantage, avenge their 2008 loss and win their fifth title and second in a row under Jackson.
He has lost in the Finals twice and didn't like it.
"There's nothing worse than losing in the Finals,'' he said. "It's about as low as you can get after riding high, getting through three series.''
After the Lakers won the title last spring, Jackson ran into Boston's Paul Pierce in the L.A. complex where Jackson's daughter lives. "I said, 'Get it back, we want to meet you in the Finals,' " Jackson said.
He's ready for them this time with another version of Batman and Robin.