LOS ANGELES -- It wasn't just a theory, apparently.
Bring on Game 7
It applies in the playoffs, too.
It was true this time, yet again, even with the Suns' Kobe Chopper banned from the building ... even with Terrell Owens leading cheers from a baseline seat while draped in a white No. 8 jersey ... even with Kobe Bryant going for 50 points instead of the mere 40-something that the Phoenix Suns figured they'd surrender in every game of this first-round epic.
Kobe scores big, Suns win.
Never seems to fail.
"This team," said Tim Thomas, who hit the 3 that forced overtime, "has big character and big heart."
Not even Bulls coach Scott Skiles, who released Thomas about a month ago, would be able to doubt Thomas on Thursday night. Facing elimination for the second successive game, and back at the scene of the two Bryant buzzer-beaters (in Game 4's OT thriller) that put the second-seeded Suns in a 3-1 hole, Phoenix rediscovered its swagger (and humor) with the tempo and script it had been hoping for since Game 1.
Kobe actually would have beaten the Suns and the trend if he had connected at the regulation buzzer, but it's clear that Phoenix feels like it was overdue for this kind of ending. The confirmation came when Mike D'Antoni and Steve Nash both made the same postgame crack about Phoenix being up 4-2 instead of deadlocked at 3-3, suggesting that they're still struggling to accept that they lost Game 4 in OT here.
This certainly helped, though.
Like Sacramento when it lost Ron Artest for a night early in the San Antonio series, Phoenix was galvanized by the one-game suspension issued to Raja Bell for Bell's unpardonable takedown of Bryant in Game 5. The Suns basically played six players, got production from all six and looked as tough as you can be giving up 118 points and 50 to one guy.
Make no mistake: For the first time in this series that keeps spoiling us, Bryant strayed from facilitating for Kobe's Kids only out of necessity. This wasn't Kobe gunning because Bell was absent. He hadn't scored more than 29 points in any of the first five games, but resurrecting Regular Season Kobe was the Lakers' only chance to win Game 6. The role players who've been so good around him (Smush Parker, most notably) finally began to flutter back to Earth, fading and tightening up in the second half and forcing T.O.'s new favorite player to be the Kobe that Phoenix prefers to see.
Deadly but lonely.
"[If] Kobe would have made that last shot," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, "you'd have been saying how great [his aggressiveness] was and everything else.
"But he didn't."
Jackson was referring to Bryant's chance to break a 105-105 tie at the regulation horn. But Bryant, who banked in a triple at the first-quarter buzzer just as a late- arriving T.O. was making his way to his seat, couldn't overcome Shawn Marion's long reach to get that last shot close.
Still, as Jackson suggested, Bryant was sensational by any measure. He rung up 50 points in 52 minutes on a mere 35 shots, with just six trips to the free-throw line.
Yet it was 50 in the manner Phoenix can live with, because Bryant had to work for everything he got. It's an exaggeration to say that the Suns don't care if Kobe goes nuts; they're fine with him scoring so long as he doesn't zoom past 40 points with bunches in transition or from the stripe. In this case, Bryant's shots were always contested and Lamar Odom was the only other Laker good for a score in the fourth quarter or OT. The other inexperienced Lakers got increasingly gun-shy.
So 50, amazingly, wasn't enough to win a playoff game for the first time in this league since Chicago's Michael Jordan went for 50 in a loss to Cleveland on Cinco de Mayo in 1989.
It wasn't enough because something else at Staples Center happened out of necessity.
The Suns' preferred pace happened.
With Bell suspended -- and assigned an NBA security guard for protection as he watched the game off-site after traveling to L.A. with the team -- Phoenix was down three starters if you include the injured Amare Stoudemire and Kurt Thomas. The Suns were also down to just eight players D'Antoni was willing to use and down 3-2 overall.
Crisp ball movement, killer shooting and an attack mentality that got Phoenix to the line more than usual.
Leandro Barbosa shook a series full of nerves and a Bryant elbow to the mouth that required four stitches to score 22 points and take turns with Marion trying to stay in front of Bryant. Marion delivered 20 points, 12 boards and that crucial blanketing of Bryant at the regulation horn to make Tim Thomas' 3-pointer with 6.3 seconds left an OT-forcing triple. Thomas, meanwhile, wound up with 21 points and 10 boards, combining with Boris Diaw (19 points and seven assists) to put L.A.'s big men in various degrees of foul trouble.
Oh, yeah: Nash looked like he might have even deserved a few of those MVP votes, with 32 points and 13 dimes and 13 free throws without a miss.
"See you Saturday," D'Antoni said as he wrapped up his postgame address.
Yes you will, Mike. Yes you will.
You wouldn't dare miss what happens next, would you?
Not with Bryant and Bell, after all their barbs and shoves, poised to take their season-long feud into a decisive seventh game ... in a series that has delivered five close ones already.
Not after the Suns, for the first time all season, finally survived one of these OT heartbreakers.
Not with a chance to see if Kobe's Kids can forget that they just blew a home-court chance to clinch a Hallway Series with the Clippers.
Was it their best chance?
"There's a lot at stake," concedes Jackson, who has never lost a first-round series in 14 previous attempts. "For them, it would be a terrific comeback. For us, it would be a monumental upset."
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Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Shaq bounced back from his Game 3 meltdown (seven turnovers) and ruled Game 6, lifting the Heat into a date with the Nets.
Credit for Shaquille O'Neal's 30-point, 20-rebound performance does not go to Shaq Daddy alone. Shaq's Daddy gets an assist.
A phone call from his stepfather, Phil Harrison, convinced O'Neal to tone down his physicality and tune up his finesse game, and the result was the most dominant performance he has produced this season.
"He cussed me out. Told me to quit [messing] around," O'Neal told ESPN.com as he exited the Miami locker room and prepared to head home for a weekend of rest before the Miami Heat begin their second-round series against the New Jersey Nets. "I came in with the mind-set that I was not going to get into foul trouble."
His prettiest move Thursday night (yes, he has "pretty" buried deep in his repertoire) was a reverse spin move in the lane during which he stopped and turned suddenly to his right, banking the ball in off the glass. He even hit a jumper, an 11-footer, for his first bucket of the game.
O'Neal said it was the first time since high school that he could remember consciously deciding to tone down his power game and try a little finesse. As his stepdad had explained, it was his best available option after foul trouble limited him to fewer than 27 minutes of playing time in three of the first five games of the series.
"In high school, that's all I knew. I was 6-10 and 6-11 shooting jumpers, and everyone was telling me to stop shooting jumpers and go to the power game. And the power game has been so good for me. I learned to stay with that, because I like to punish people, make 'em crazy, make 'em flop, make 'em call David Stern. That's my power game, but Pops told me to go to the finesse, and I did," O'Neal said.
The win was the first playoff victory for the Heat franchise at the United Center after nine consecutive losses, and O'Neal's 30 points and 20 rebounds marked the first 30-20 game in the playoffs since he did it in Game 4 of the 2004 Finals against Detroit.
It'll be up to Nenad Krstic and Jason Collins to decipher whether the Big Fella will play like Shaq Diesel or Shaq Hybrid, but it might be more important to find a way to defend Vince Carter -- something the Heat couldn't do in the regular season when they lost their final three against the Nets as Carter scored 51, 28 and 43.
"We get to see him consistent, and then we get to go work on him," Gary Payton said. "We won't have to wait five weeks or three weeks to see him again. We get to see him right away and adjust to his situation."
-- Chris Sheridan at the United Center in Chicago
Gilbert Arenas and LeBron James have combined for 350 points in the first five games of the Wiz-Cavs series. They are within striking distance -- if the series goes seven games -- of the NBA record for most points by two opposing players in one postseason series. That record is held by Jerry West and John Havlicek, who combined for 463 points (265 for Mr. Clutch and 198 for Hondo) in the 1969 NBA Finals. The Celtics won that series in seven games.
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After Tim Thomas hit a 3 to save the Suns' season, Phoenix beat the Lakers in overtime. Behind the Suns' bench, comedian Larry David has difficulty trying to curb his despair.
Suns Stay Alive
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
Tim wasn't Tiny in Game 6, delivering two crucial late 3s, including the one that sent the game into overtime.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Leandro Barbosa, covering Kobe Bryant in place of the suspended Raja Bell, saw No. 8 post 50 on the board. But Barbosa was a threat offensively (22 points) in the Suns' 126-118 OT win.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
When they found themselves standing together in the lulls of Game 6, Anthony Johnson kept telling Jason Kidd that Kidd was going back to Jersey for a Game 7 on Saturday. Here Johnson was, making the most improbable transformation in NBA playoff history --- journeyman to shooting star, scrub to savior --- and the Pacers' point guard was delivering a most disturbing message to his old teammate.
Kidd couldn't stop Johnson in this series, and didn't Thursday in Game 6, but the Nets and Kidd survived his surreal 40-point performance on the way to a 96-90 series-clinching victory. Kidd struggled with his shot and his lateral quickness to defend, but never his resolve. Still, the Nets are never the Nets without greatness out of Kidd, and that's been missing in these playoffs.
Truth be told, the Nets didn't beat the Pacers as much as they survived them. The Pacers were so depleted with injuries, so short on bodies, they never should've been able to get so deep into a series with the Nets. But they did. For all the Nets' inconsistencies in this series and all the flaws exposed, Vince Carter tried to sell New Jersey's struggles as a steppingstone instead of a stumble.
"We didn't leave any player on his own out on an island," Carter said. "We learned to trust each other in this series. We came together."
Carter destroyed the Heat in the regular season, dropping 51 and 45 points in two of New Jersey's victories (the Nets won the season series 3-1). But these Nets are forever about the point guard, forever about Kidd. He has always been the constant, always the rock. Now, Kidd needs a lift. They could beat the Pacers without the best of him, survive Anthony Johnson lighting him up over and over, but everything changes on Biscayne Bay beginning Monday night. Anthony Johnson steps aside for Dwyane Wade now.
Here comes the best of Kidd, or there go the Nets into summer.
-- Adrian Wojnarowski at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis
Grant (Denver): How you feeling about Dirk now?
Ric Bucher: Same as I always have: I love Dirk. Love how he's transformed his game to fit the Mavs' new look. Love how he's emerged as more of a leader with Nash and Finley gone. Love how he handles the ball for a big. Love that textbook J. Love that Teutonic shag. He proved he's a level above Pau Gasol. Has he proved he belonged on my MVP ballot? No, for the same reason he wasn't there at the end of the regular season: There are a lot of factors contributing to the Mavs' success. He is their biggest. Bigger than Kobe, Nash, Billups, Duncan and LeBron were to their teams? Not in my opinion.
Brendan (Alexandria, VA): I understand refs not getting a call correct in a game. What I don't accept is to overturn a correct call after talking it over. At the end of the first half, LeBron was whistled for a charge and then it was changed to a defensive blocking foul. The replay showed it was a charge. That would have been James' third foul and would have changed the second half even more. What do you make of that call, and do you think the point the Wizards made earlier in the series seems correct about the favoritism?
Ric Bucher: LeBron is a lot like other superstars with a tremendous combination of speed and strength. They're just harder to officiate. (Shaq has become considerably easier now that he's slowed down.) As for the travel call, the refs obviously missed it, but they've by and large done a great job of cleaning up travels, especially the jump stop and additional step. That used to be standard, and they've all but eliminated it. The competitiveness of the first round and attraction has increased the spotlight and scrutiny on every single call. All I can tell you, as someone who worked as a D League ref-in-training and talks regularly with NBA referees, is that it's an incredibly tough job and any and all conspiracy notions are silly.
Matthew (Los Angeles): Chris, at some point this season, various NBA observers were criticizing LeBron because he had never made a game-winning shot (after a few notable failures). Seemed like a silly criticism. He wound up with a few on the season and now has two in this series. Is it safe to say that he can remove the "non-clutch" label that was irresponsibly affixed to him?
Chris Broussard: I always thought it was silly to say he wasn't clutch. He's only 21! This guy has had more pressure on him than any 21-year-old in all of basketball, if not all of sports. Every time has has faced a challenge, he has answered it. When he got to the postseason, he went out and got a triple-double in his first game! He is oblivious to media criticism and pressure. Why should we think the last two seconds of a game will change how he plays? I thought all that criticism was silly from the beginning.
Mark (Brooklyn, NYC): Can the Clippers make it to the Finals? or is that stretching it a little?
Chris Broussard: I don't think it is stretching it. Someone asked me who I would pick, and I would say Detroit and Dallas right now. I like the Clippers because they are so versatile, and they would kill the Lakers in the post if they meet in the second round. I think the Clippers have a great shot to get to the Western Conference finals. They are as versatile as any team in the league right now.