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Lakers-Suns: As Good As It Gets

Remember the film from a few years back, “As Good as it Gets’’? Jack Nicholson was in that one. Nicholson, who as always, was courtside Thursday night when the Lakers and Suns played a game that was, yes, as good as it gets.

Maybe it wasn’t for Suns fans. Not when they look at the scoreboard. But if they are able to see the big picture, if they judge a sporting event for what it can offer in excitement and drama and irony, even they grudgingly might concede.

Because when it comes to the games we love, when it comes to NBA basketball, when it comes to the tension and intensity of the playoffs, it doesn’t get any better than Thursday night at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.

Doesn’t get any more dramatic. Or compelling. Or, because of the way it ended, those Lakers, those irritating, persistent, call-them-lucky Lakers turning a missed shot into a win with no time on the clock, more fanciful.

Pure Hollywood, baby. Ron Artest, picked up as a free agent last summer, earlier off the mark, one field goal in eight previous attempts, one of those a wild-hare castoff when the smart play was running time off the clock, then rebounding Kobe Bryant’s miss with no time on the clock for a 103-101 victory.

“See what happens,’’ Bryant told the media throng after the game.

What happens is what always happens, when you’re the Lakers or the Yankees or the Patriots or the University of Alabama. What happens is you have the talent that makes the difference.

What happens is Derek Jeter throws out a guy at home plate. Or Tom Brady escapes three defensive linemen. Or Ron Artest is in the right place at the right time.

“Maybe it’s luck,’’ said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. “But we did most of the things right when you look at the stat sheet.’’

To appreciate this one, this joyful match of brilliance, of Kobe within an assist of a triple double (30 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists); of Steve Nash, who had 29 points and 11 assists; of the Suns coming back from 18 down and then the Lakers stealing it at the end, you had to look at the floor. Or the TV screen.

You had to focus on the tough defense and the deft passing and the amazing offense of Bryant and Nash, who having done this so many times in a way are less amazing than they are consistent.

The NBA post-season is full of hyperbole and hysteria. It’s the nature of series in which teams play each other again and again, series in which momentum is more theory than actuality.

When the Lakers won the first two games at home, we were told the Suns couldn’t handle the Lakers’ size. When the Suns won the next two games we were told the Lakers couldn’t handle the Suns’ zone defense.

Chicken Little was right, the sky is falling, and sometimes so are the 3-pointers.

Somehow you sensed the Lakers were going to beat the Suns on Thursday, were going to take a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference final. That’s the way NBA playoffs go, although nobody would have predicted the style and pattern this fifth game went.

The guess is the Suns will win Game 6, Saturday night, but then Game 7 is back in L.A., back with Nicholson peering through his dark glasses, and so the Lakers will win.

That’s the way it works. The Lakers moving on to take on the Boston Celtics, who will find their own method of beating the Orlando Magic in the Eastern final.

The good teams find a way, and that’s why they are the good teams. If it’s not Kobe, it’s Pau Gasol. If it’s not Pau Gasol it’s Derek Fisher. If it’s not Derek Fisher, it’s Ron Artest, brought in last summer with a lot of doubts. He’ll wreck the chemistry was the contention of a lot of basketball folk.

Instead he wrecked the Suns. “We should have boxed out,’’ were the rueful words of Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry. Indeed. But they also shouldn’t have made the 3-pointer by Jason Richardson that banged off the glass to tie the thing with 3.5 seconds to play.

Overtime then was a probability. An unlikely Suns win a possibility. But Kobe was firing and Artest, with a champion’s instincts, was waiting. He burst into the lane, grabbed the ball and banked it in as the red lights flashed declaring finality.

“I figured it was going to be a little short, because I thought Kobe was fouled,’’ said Artest. “And it was short.’’

Artest turned out to be short of marvelous, in a game that was marvelous.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was recently honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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