Grizzled veteran Phil Jackson has seen it all as a player and coach in the NBA but even he was dumbfounded by Ron Artest’s stunning turnaround from zero to hero for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Artest had missed two ill-advised three-pointers in the last minute of Thursday’s Game Five against the Phoenix Suns before he sank the winning basket as time expired to leave the Lakers one victory away from the NBA finals.
“He has an uncanny knack of doing things, and sometimes it just works out,” Lakers coach Jackson told reporters after the NBA champions scraped past the Suns 103-101 to take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals.
“He just has a knack of being around crucial plays.”
Asked if he had ever witnessed such a sudden and dramatic change in fortune for a player, the 64-year-old Jackson replied: “No, I have not. I’m still recovering.
“We had a little session with Ron after the ball game. A lot of hugs, and then a lot of discussion.”
Artest had struggled with his shooting all night at the Staples Center, making only one-of-eight from the field before his buzzer-beating heroics thwarted a gripping Suns fightback.
Phoenix had rallied from an 18-point deficit to trail by just three in the final minute when Artest missed consecutive open shots from beyond the arc, the second of them when the Lakers should have been running down the clock.
Jason Richardson banked in a game-tying three-pointer with 3.5 seconds left for the Suns and Jackson immediately called a 20-second timeout.
“I don’t know why I left him in the game,” Jackson said of his decision to allow Artest back on court for the final possession. “I actually questioned it myself when I put him out there on the floor, and there he was. Made the key play.”
Jackson’s final play was set up for Kobe Bryant to go for the winning shot but his attempt from long range came up short. Artest slipped in to beat Richardson to the rebound and he scored with an awkward layup to send the crowd into a frenzy.
“I thought Kobe got fouled on the shot so I just kind of figured it was going to be short,” said Artest, who was mobbed by his jubilant team mates after making what he called the biggest shot of his career.
“I missed a lot of layups during the regular season. I’m just staying with it, just trying to play my part and see what happens.”
Artest, effectively traded to the Lakers from the Houston Rockets last July for three-point specialist Trevor Ariza, has struggled to fit in with the Los Angeles offense this season.
“I’m a better player than my numbers are speaking of right now but there’s a new system for me,” he said. “I’m trying to somehow make it work for the team.”
His buzzer-beating basket certainly worked for the Lakers on Thursday night and they can reach the NBA Finals for a third year in a row if they beat the Suns in Phoenix in Game Six on Saturday.
(Editing by Frank Pingue; To query or comment on this story email email@example.com)