By Mike Wise
Friday, May 28, 2010; D01
LOS ANGELES Ron Artest bear-hugged teammates as the horn sounded.
"Ron-Ron!" someone yelled from the Lakers bench. "Ron-Ron!"
He bear-hugged a dozen fans, many of whom stayed late at Staples Center to meet him outside the locker room.
He embraced everyone who had their arms raised and open for the unlikely guy who bailed Kobe Bryant and the Lakers out of Game 5.
"Thanks for letting me enjoy it," Artest said more than an hour after he put back Bryant's missed jumper at the buzzer of a pulsating victory over the crestfallen Phoenix Suns, who now stand on the ledge of playoff elimination.
What a finish. What a game. What a night for Ron-Ron, reborn on the court -- hugging everyone, having appropriate contact with people who pay to watch the game.
Nearly six years and three teams later, the guy once known as the worst human being in sports -- Mr. Malice at the Palace -- became the most famous and admired person east of the Hollywood Hills on Thursday night
Jack Nicholson and Jeremy Piven clapped for him.
Well, okay, after he banked home the game-winner. Before then, Ron-Ron was on bad-shot alert with some ill-timed three-point attempts.
"I don't why I left him in the game," Phil Jackson acknowledged amid laughs after the Lakers moved within a game of their third NBA Finals appearance in three years with a 103-101 victory. "I actually questioned it myself when I put him out there on the floor, and there he was. Made the key play."
On a night Jason Richardson banked in a three-point prayer with 3.5 seconds remaining to bring the Suns all the way from 18 down with 3 minutes 44 seconds left in the third quarter to 101-all, Artest's rebound and short banker released with 0.8 of a second left was one of the only things he did right all evening.
But then, that's what happens when you orbit Bryant and Jackson's universe; their grab for glory becomes yours. Osmosis from all that winning and those pressurized victories at the horn rubs off on everyone in purple and gold.
Even a guy dealt the longest non-drug or gambling-related suspension in NBA history more than five years ago, when Artest was suspended for 73 regular season games and the playoffs for his role in an ugly brawl between players and fans in Detroit.
"Sometimes you gotta be the worst guy," he said, solemnly, shrugging his shoulders.
Gone were not only those leftover images from Detroit after his shot banked in, but also the ill-advised three-point shot he took with lots of time on the shot clock, when not just the entire coaching staff was mouthing, "No, no, no" but just about the entire arena.
"Did you hear them?" Artest was asked.
"No, during the game you're not supposed to hear them."
Jackson, asked about a couple of Artest's heaves and whether he let his player know about it, said, "That time of the game, it's not a good play. And I wanted to let him know that he has to know that and recognize it."
Asked if Artest acknowledged him, Jackson added, "He was trying not to listen to me, very hard."
Ignoring the most accomplished coach of all time. Beautiful.
That Ron-Ron, he's still a rascal. You got to love him.
In fact, as much as it pains the multitudes of Laker loathers everywhere, you've got to admire how they go about their business each time they seem threatened with postseason extinction.
Each May and June, when their world is rumored to be collapsing, the supreme confidence -- that flat-out imperious nature -- doesn't fade; it actually grows, unleashing itself for pulsating nights like these.
Jackson nods more. He grins facetiously more, as if he's enjoying the 10-0 runs from the other team, giving false hope to the peasants. Bryant trudges up court with a nonchalance befitting an unhurried check-out clerk who doesn't care how long it takes to ring up your groceries.
And a role player such as Artest pierces the dream for another team that thought it would go down. Top-down confidence, they call this, and for the Lakers the rough translation to the rest of the NBA is:
"Don't worry, we got this."
Before their glamorously loud crowd, the Lakers held on and are now one game away from retaining the West crown after taking a three games to two lead over a superb Steve Nash and a very game Suns team.
Artest's rebound and short turnaround off the glass effectively took back Phoenix's belief it was actually back to even in the series after two resilient games in the desert.
Game 6 is Saturday night in Phoenix, where the Lakers are already sniffing another trip to the Finals.
Jackson, an unheard-of 46-0 when his teams win Game 1 of a series, is a close-out game away from staying perfect. He's also perfect in his last nine Game 5s as coach of the Lakers, including last year's clinching victory over Orlando that gave Jackson one more title than the late Red Auerbach.
Bryant was brilliant in a second-quarter onslaught, playmaking, scoring and essentially taking back momentum in the series from Nash. His line (30 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists) was nice, but his defense may have been better -- 4 blocked shots. Most of all, the Lakers slowed down the Suns, refusing to get into a stop-and-pop game with an up-tempo team that outshot and outplayed the Lakers in Games 3 and 4.
Old hand Derek Fisher lent scoring support to Bryant, finishing with 22 points and some very big jumpers down the stretch. Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol (who combined for 38 points and 22 rebounds) were both active inside, challenging shots on the defensive end and breaking down a Suns' zone defense that discombobulated the Lakers in the two games in Phoenix.
Nicholson began pumping his fist courtside, doing his part as the oldest, most famous fan in the building. Lawrence Tanter, the team's baritone-voiced public address announcer since the 1981-82 season at the old Forum, waited for the gyrating women to finish their routine before intoning, "The Laker Girls," and all that was left was for Randy Newman's "I Love L.A." to wrap up another important playoff game for the Lakers.
Phoenix found a way to erase that euphoria, turning the building into a nail-biting scene in the final seconds.
Artest then brought the noise and the madness back. The one player Phil Jackson wanted to cuss out and take out ended up putting the Lakers on the cusp of another trip to the Finals.
"Thanks for letting me enjoy it," he said as he walked away from the masses of reporters and fans.
The night Ron Artest rocked Staples Center and found his way back into his coach's good graces, the pleasure was all ours.