NBA: Lakers can think about Celtics after finally putting away Suns
By Mike Bresnahan
Los Angeles Times
PHOENIX — The Los Angeles Lakers continued their redemption tour, putting away the ghosts of Phoenix past before turning toward a more palatable prize — the Boston Celtics.
The Lakers closed out the Suns in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, 111-103, finally able to flick away lingering playoff losses to them in 2006 and 2007.
Ron Artest, the team mascot for redemption after his buzzer-beating follow shot in Game 5, continued to stun the Suns with 25 points Saturday at US Airways Center, helping move the Lakers within four victories of their 16th NBA championship, a somewhat surprising outcome for a team that looked lost at the end of the regular season.
The Lakers dropped seven of their final 11 games before getting a severe test in the first round from Oklahoma City, but they won the West for the 31stt time in franchise history and, of greater importance, set up a rematch with the Celtics, the same franchise that embarrassed them in the clinching game of the NBA Finals two years ago, a 131-92 Game 6 humiliation that still sticks with the Lakers.
Game 1 in the NBA Finals is Thursday at Staples Center. The format will be 2-3-2, the middle three games in Boston, assuming they're all necessary.
Meanwhile, the Lakers have finished off five consecutive playoff teams on the road, dating to last season's ouster of Denver in the conference finals and Orlando in the NBA Finals. They won elimination games in Oklahoma City last month, Utah in the conference semifinals and now Phoenix.
It wasn't easy, often the case in this series, an 18-point Lakers lead whittled down to three on Steve Nash's layup with 3:02 to play.
But Kobe Bryant, who scored 37 points, made a long jumper from the right side and glided down the court with his arms out airplane style, the Lakers ahead, 107-100, with 34.2 seconds left.
The latest threat to the Lakers' championship repeat had ended. The Lakers will play in a third consecutive NBA Finals.
"Some of these guys remember how it felt," said Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who pretended he had amnesia when asked about the Game 6 loss to Boston two years ago.
Jackson then related a tale of running into Celtics forward Paul Pierce last summer, and saying he wanted to see the Finals matchup again.
Bryant had six rebounds and two assists, concluding a series in which he came close to a triple-double three times.
Neither the Lakers nor Boston celebrated with champagne after winning their respective conferences. That's for amateurs, in the eyes of the two franchises, who undeniably delighted their fan bases with the rematch.
Boston fans yelled out "Beat L.A." in the final game of the Eastern Conference finals, balanced out by the fact that Lakers followers chanted "We want Boston" numerous times in the conference finals at Staples Center.
The Lakers know one thing about the Celtics, who split two regular-season games with them and ejected Orlando in the East in six games.
"They're physical," Jackson said. "(Kevin) Garnett showed that during the course of the game (Friday), didn't he? I guess they've got that part of their game back."
Artest, coming off his Game 5 winner, stayed hot throughout Game 6, making 10 of 16 shots, four of seven from three-point range. In fact, he was the game's leading scorer in the first half, 17 points on seven-for-11 shooting as the Lakers led, 65-53.
The night wasn't perfect for the Lakers.
The NBA will take a close look at Sasha Vujacic's activities after the reserve guard elbowed Suns guard Goran Dragic in the face while the two were going downcourt with 11:18 left in the fourth quarter.
Dragic came up behind Vujacic and lightly bumped him, but Vujacic responded by throwing both arms into the air, striking Dragic. Vujacic was assessed a flagrant foul, type one, and stayed in the game, though the NBA will review the play and determine any further action, if necessary.
The Suns were ignited by the play, which ended with Dragic down on the court for more than a minute, and they began their early fourth-quarter run from there.
But the Lakers wouldn't be denied.
They'll get Boston, just like their fans wanted.
Just like the Lakers themselves wanted.