Kobe Bryant, Lakers finish off the Suns, set a date with an old foe
These poor, scarred people of the Sun, the very last believers in Steve Nash's drought and his team's determination.
All gussied up in fluorescent orange cotton. More than 18,000 strong, united against the sinister forces of the heartless one who would darken their arena for the summer.
If the frantic fans of Phoenix only studied their playoff history better they would understand: This is what Kobe Bryant does better than anyone in the league, the foot-on-the-throat thing in a visiting arena. This is what he, Phil Jackson and the Los Angeles Lakers have made a living out of for the better part of a decade.
Ron Artest rattled Phoenix's confidence early in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, but Bryant and his 37 points permanently damaged the Suns' psyche -- including two hanging jump shots from deep on the right wing with the Lakers clinging to slims leads at US Airways Arena.
The second came with the Lakers ahead 105-100 and the Suns needing one defensive stand to stay alive. With 35.2 seconds remaining, that 23-foot rainbow hit their solar plexus and shut the door on Nash and Phoenix's entertaining stop-and-pop postseason.
After some taut moments in the final 10 minutes, the defending champions vaulted into their third straight NBA Finals -- and their 31st as a franchise -- where they will host the Boston Celtics in Game 1 on Thursday.
All because Bryant buried another team's comeback, because he cruelly bore straight through Phoenix's soul and ended the Suns' season with incredible, well-defended, degree-of-difficulty shots from just inside the three-point line.
"Kobe was the man tonight," Jackson said simply.
Suns Coach Alvin Gentry was almost chuckling to hide the pain when Bryant hit the last one.
"We guarded him," Gentry said. "I thought Grant [Hill] was going to block the shot. That was a fall-away three-pointer with a hand in your face, off balance.