Artest's value proved in absence
PHOENIX -- While calling highlights from the New York Jets' upset of the previously undefeated Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, an ESPN SportsCenter anchor suggested that the only sure thing to take away from Indy's loss was that Peyton Manning locked up the MVP trophy while on the sidelines because all of the Jets' dramatic comeback occurred with him out of the game.
In similar fashion, one could argue that the major discovery gleaned from the Lakers' 118-103 road loss to the Phoenix Suns on Monday was that if the jury was out on Ron Artest's addition to the team before this road trip, his value was firmly established in his absence.
The Lakers were lost on defense, allowing the Suns to shoot 11-for-26 from three-point territory after the first quarter as Phoenix turned a two-point lead after one period to as high as 22 before settling on the 15-point rout.
Artest was at home in Los Angeles, still experiencing dizziness from his fall on Friday according to Phil Jackson. The Lakers coach said he his "hopeful" that Artest will be available to play against the Golden State Warriors back in L.A. on Tuesday. If Jackson is doing the hoping, then the rest of the team should be doing the praying because if the defense looked that porous against the league's No. 1 offense in Phoenix, it's hard to imagine it looking much better against the league's No. 2 in Golden State without Artest back.
The Lakers won their two previous games against the Suns this season with Artest in the lineup by an average of 19.5 points per game.
Los Angeles held Phoenix to just 40.1 percent shooting in the first two meetings. The Suns shot 48.9 percent on Monday without Artest out there, right about back to the 50.1 percent they have shot against every other team they've played this year besides the Lakers.
The Lakers also continued their trend of getting blown out in losses. Through their first five losses, they lost by an average of 15 points. In their sixth loss Monday, they lost by 15 exactly.
"Defensively we just weren't there," Andrew Bynum said, "Sometimes we switched, sometimes not. Sometimes we'd load [to one side], sometimes not. It was just terrible."
"Ron is a guy who helps that 100 percent," Bynum said. "He is definitely a captain out there on the defense, he's always talking and stuff."
Not that when he's talking everybody can understand him. Jackson said that he left it up to Lakers trainer Gary Vitti to communicate with Artest while he is recovering in L.A. because "I usually need a translator when I speak to Ron over the phone."
It wasn't Artest's statistical output that was missed -- he only averaged 10 points and two rebounds in those two wins -- so much as his overall presence, both as a vocal leader on defense and a capable body that's going to give you 30 minutes in the rotation.
"It's a big adjustment [without Ron] because we're a team that thrives on chemistry," Kobe Bryant said after seeing his game-high 34 points go to waste.
"You take him out of the lineup now you're mixing lineups with guys who aren't familiar playing positions or playing with particular units -- It's a little different."
Bryant had plenty of time to watch one of those Lakers potpourri crews up close, spending the last 7:50 of the fourth quarter on the bench with the rout already on and Los Angeles closing out the game with various ragtag combinations of Sasha Vujacic, Lamar Odom, Josh Powell, D.J. Mbenga, Adam Morrison, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown.
The bench, like a nagging ingrown toenail on the Lakers' Adonis-like overall body of work, came up small once again. They were outscored 52-31 and frequently made mistakes on defense.
At shootaround earlier in the day, Bryant, knowing that his team was down a starter and in the midst of a four-games-in-five-days stretch that already featured two overtimes on Saturday and a final back-to-back against the two teams that play at the most frenetic pace in the league, welcomed the substitutions to shine.
"They'll get their call tonight," Bryant said. "This is their night to step up and make a big contribution."
It didn't happen.
The most memorable moment involving the bench occurred after Vujacic failed to make a proper rotation in the third quarter, leaving the lane wide open for Leandro Barbosa to glide in for a layup. Vujacic was so disappointed in himself that he slapped his own face with both of his hands in frustration as he ran back up the court.
Morrison even foolishly tried to flip a behind-the-back pass to Mbenga in traffic when he was already just a few feet from the rim and open for a shot himself.
Outside of Bryant, it wasn't like the starters fared much better.
For the second time in three games since signing a monster contract extension, you hardly noticed Pau Gasol was on the court at all as he finished with just 13 points, five rebounds and four turnovers.
Bynum had nine points and six rebounds in the first quarter, but finished with just 14 and nine.
And Odom, who Jackson said is his only viable backup for Artest at small forward right now, only racked up nine points on 4-for-13 shooting when granted the start for the second straight game.
"I wasn't comfortable with my starters or my bench," Jackson said. "I didn't like either group."
In other words, it was kind of like a game of Jenga. Taking Artest out -- one player out of 13 -- caused the whole team to collapse.
Dave McMenamin is a writer and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.