LOS ANGELES – A path through the lane suddenly opened up before Ron Artest. Kobe Bryant's missed 3-pointer dropped right into his hands, and Artest's awkward layup banked neatly through the net as the buzzer sounded on Game 5 of the Western Conference finals.
What a pretty finish to an ugly game for the Lakers' veteran troublemaker, who has struggled to find his role throughout his first season with the defending champions — and what a strange, thrilling way for Artest to carve out his own spot in the Lakers' playoff lore.
Artest banked home the winning shot after grabbing the biggest offensive rebound of his career, nudging the Lakers past the Phoenix Suns 103-101 on Thursday night to take a 3-2 series lead.
Bryant had 30 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists for the Lakers, but the improbable hero of Game 5 is the only new player on their roster. Bryant and Artest wrapped each other in a bear hug after Artest homed in on Bryant's miss and threw up a hideous shot that somehow went in.
"It means a lot for him," Bryant said. "I think for him emotionally, it's a big boost. ... Once I released the ball, I saw Ron sneaking in. I was just hoping that he got it off in time."
Artest's basket completed a 2-for-9 shooting night redeemed by one supremely heady offensive rebound. Moments earlier, Jason Richardson banked in a straightaway 3-pointer with 3.5 seconds left to tie it for the Suns.
"I wasn't playing my game from the beginning," Artest said. "In the second half, I was finding my way a little bit, made some good passes and good steals and got some rebounds. So I guess that aggressive play can carry over into that last possession."
Game 6 is Saturday night in Phoenix, where the Lakers can clinch the chance to play for their 16th championship.
Phoenix clawed back from an 18-point deficit in the second half with a superb game by Steve Nash, who had 29 points and 11 assists. After Richardson's accidental tying bank shot, the Lakers went to Bryant, whose miss went straight to Artest.
"I thought Kobe got fouled on the shot, so I figured it was going to be short," Artest said. "And it was a little short."
Lakers coach Phil Jackson wasn't even sure why he had Artest in the game after the veteran forward missed consecutive open shots earlier in the final minute.
"He has an uncanny knack of doing things, and sometimes it just works out," Jackson said. "He just has a knack for being around crucial plays."
Lamar Odom had 17 points and 11 rebounds for the Lakers, who led 101-96 with 90 seconds to play before Nash hit another jumper and Artest missed twice, the home crowd yelling in frustration with each open brick.
"His whole methods since we were small is, 'I'm going to outwork you,'" said Odom, who played AAU ball with Artest in their New York youth. "'I'm going to bang you until you don't want no more. His stubbornness is the reason why he took that 3, because he just missed one. That's part of his game, that's why he's a great player, and that's why he's a great defender. It's just something you have to live with."
Led by Nash's stirring second-half effort, the Suns hacked away at Los Angeles' lead throughout the fourth quarter. Phoenix trimmed its deficit to 95-94 when Nash converted a three-point play and then fed Amare Stoudemire for a layup that barely beat the shot clock with 2:52 left.
"Everything is OK," Nash said. "We can't knock a great effort. Maybe we deserved this game, maybe we didn't. They held home court. We'll go back and do the same, and we'll come back here for Game 7."
Stoudemire scored 19 points for the Suns, who had three looks at a 3-point shot in the final seconds. Nash and Richardson both missed, but Richardson then missed so badly that he banked it in from a long step behind the line.
"We just didn't quite finish the game," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. "I have no complaints. They played great. We hung in. We did a great job against Kobe on the last shot, just didn't come up with the rebound. To me, it's a great effort by us, and they know we're not going to go away."
The Lakers already won on a last-second layup earlier in the postseason, when Pau Gasol sent home the Oklahoma City Thunder with an offensive rebound and a score in Game 6 of the first round.
Derek Fisher scored 22 points and Gasol had 21 points and nine rebounds for the Lakers, who rebounded from consecutive losses in Phoenix with their best defensive performance of the series, forcing 15 turnovers and holding Phoenix to mediocre shooting — yet the Suns still came agonizingly close to handing Los Angeles its first home loss of the postseason.
The Lakers improved to 8-0 at Staples Center, where they'll play Game 7 on Monday night if the Suns hold serve in a series featuring five wins for the home team.
After dominating Game 4 while Phoenix evened the series, the Suns' bench outscored the Lakers just 31-24 in Game 5, while Los Angeles reasserted its size advantage against the Suns' zone defense with a 49-40 rebounding edge. The Lakers surged to a 16-point lead in the first half with a 21-4 run led by Bryant, who hit three consecutive 3-pointers in less than a minute.
Gentry vomited into a trash can while sitting on the bench in the first half after apparently eating something that disagreed with him. Gentry, who reportedly received intravenous fluids at halftime, also didn't care for the officiating, earning a technical foul midway through the Lakers' big run.
Los Angeles jumped ahead 74-56 in the third quarter, but Phoenix made a 16-4 rally including a four-point play by Jared Dudley to trim the lead to six points heading into the fourth.
NOTES: The Lakers have won Game 5 the last nine straight times they've reached it in a playoff series, including last season's title clincher over Orlando. Los Angeles also is the only team that hasn't trailed in a series this spring. ... Nash was a 91 percent free throw shooter in the playoffs (61 for 67) before missing two in the first quarter of Game 5. ... Lakers G Sasha Vujacic's 3-pointer in the fourth quarter was his first since April 13.