Artest feeling like his old self
PHILADELPHIA -- "I know I'm not going to play like this every night."
(Then again, we are talking about Ron Artest, so "odd" pretty much goes without saying. He makes $5.8 million this season yet wore the same exact shirt to the Lakers' game in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday that he wore in Toronto on Sunday. Homer Simpson changes his wardrobe more often.)
Artest had just turned in his finest game since joining the team, scoring 16 points on five-for-five shooting and ripping down 11 rebounds. It was his first double-double in a Lakers uniform, and eight games later it remains his only one.
It turns out his lack of confidence wasn't odd but informed. He was experiencing painful plantar fasciitis in both of his feet and with his dogs barking that loud he couldn't imagine displaying bravado.
Artest explained Friday after the Lakers' 99-91 win in Philadelphia that he tore two ligaments in his right ankle last season while playing for Houston. He called it "dumb" but said he wouldn't consider sitting out after Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming spent so much time on the injured list. Instead of resting he played through the injury and the pain spread to the bottom of his heel. He didn't get it checked out during the offseason and the pain continued to move all down the bottom of both of his feet.
Feet that support a 6-foot-7, 260-pound man.
He told Lakers trainer Gary Vitti about the problem and they went to work. The discomfort started to cease Sunday in Toronto. I remember one possession when Kobe Bryant needed a teammate to inbound the ball to while standing on the sidelines just past the half-court line. Artest recognized it and broke into an all-out sprint from near the baseline in the front court, all the way back to the top of the key in the backcourt to receive the pass.
It seemed overzealous and out of place at the time, but it turns out it was merely a celebration of being able to run pain-free, like a driver going 140 mph on the Autobahn not because he has anywhere pressing to get to, but because there's no speed limit holding him back.
"I'm feeling good, my feet are feeling good," Artest said. "Ever since Toronto I was running really fast and moving, just moving. I can run, stop on a dime, run, cut hard, stop short, move again, hustle and chase hard off down screens."
He chooses to use his mobility to fuel his defense. He harassed Andre Iguodala up and down the court Friday, helping limit the 76ers' star to only seven shots in 43 minutes and five turnovers. It came on the heels of holding Indiana's Danny Granger to only eight shots Wednesday.
"I kind of was questioning my age after awhile," Artest said. "I was like, 'Is this fixable? Am I just getting old?' As they've been fixing it, it made me play hard and I felt like almost the old Ron so I'm like, 'Wow, I might be able to get it back.'
"I was a great defender at one time."
Lakers coach Phil Jackson had mocked Artest's movement, blaming the slowdown on the player's sneakers. Artest wears Peak, a Chinese brand, but Jackson referred to them as "concrete boots" and "Frankenstein shoes."
Jackson said in the last couple of weeks he thought Artest was "slogging" around the court. There was a loose ball that Artest saved from going out of bounds with a Dennis Rodman-like effervescence late in the first half and the hustle led to a fastbreak and two Andrew Bynum free throws on the other end.
Los Angeles Lakers
There was nothing "sloggy" about Artest on Friday and his hard-to-please coach had praise for him after the game.
"I think he was aggressive," Jackson said. "He came out the very first play of the game and got a three-point play. His hands were quick. He got steals. He made plays."
The three-point play sparked a 10-point first quarter. Artest finished with 18 points on seven-for-13 shooting, including a three-for-five clip on three-pointers, and also had four rebounds and three steals.
He was averaging only 4.0 points on 25 percent (five for 20) shooting in his last three games coming into Philly. His rebounding was even worse, as he pulled down only four boards in the three games, the 1.3 rebounds per game average registering well below his 4.7 per-game mark on the season.
"I don't care about the points," Artest said at least 10 times in his postgame comments.
He probably should. At least a little bit. If you are going to choose a jersey number as special as No. 37 in honor of the number of consecutive weeks that Michael Jackson's "Thriller" album was No. 1 on the charts, then you might want to actually call your own number on the court once in a while so people actually remember that you're wearing it.
Plus, he has found a legitimate niche in the offense as a three-point threat. He should look to exploit it the way he did Friday when he hit two three-pointers in the game's final minutes to put L.A. up by 12 and put the game out of reach. It's the one thing he has done consistently since joining the team, quietly leading the Lakers with 64 three-pointers while shooting a respectable 38.6 percent from beyond the arc.
Artest started his night Friday by greeting former AAU teammate Elton Brand (who Artest and Lamar Odom played together with from the time they were 11 years old) with a warm hug, getting all of his tender feelings out of his system before spending the rest of the game banging against bodies like a tenderizer takes to a chicken breast.
Artest reminisced about the three of them afterward.
"We got in a lot of fights," he said. "Me and Elton got in fights a couple times. Me and Lamar got in fights. Elton and Lamar never got in a fight though. It was always me."
With all that history between them, Odom is a good guy to trust then when he got into a fight (well "argument" or even "discussion") with a reporter after the game about whether this was Artest's best effort as a Laker.
Said Odom: "The best is yet to come."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.