Commentary

Keeping 35 from 35

Ron Artest is ready to stop one of the best shooters in the league

Updated: March 26, 2010, 11:35 AM ET
By Arash Markazi | ESPNLosAngeles.com

Ron Artest and Kevin DurantNoah Graham/NBAE via Getty ImagesRon Artest will have his hands full defending Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- As the Lakers wrapped up practice Thursday at the Ford Center, Kobe Bryant took a seat on the scorer's table next to Phil Jackson, and they both began watching Ron Artest running around the court, air-guarding no one in particular.

"Look at him," Bryant said.

"He wanted to watch more tape on the Durant kid," Jackson said. "He's been on fire."

"The Durant kid" is, of course, Kevin Durant, who is second in the league in scoring, averaging 29.7 points per game, and has led the Oklahoma City Thunder to the sixth-best record (43-27) in the West.

These are the kinds of matchups Artest relishes, and Durant is the kind of player the Lakers signed Artest to harass, especially if the Lakers meet the Thunder in the playoffs. In three meetings against the Lakers this season, Durant has averaged 25.6 points. Artest's goal is not only to hold Durant to that number -- any time Artest holds a player to less than his scoring average he considers it a personal victory -- but also to shut him down in the fourth quarter. Artest was successful in doing that the last time the Lakers were in Oklahoma City, when Durant scored 28 points but was 0-for-5 with three turnovers in the fourth quarter and overtime as the Lakers won 101-98.

Artest was the last player to leave the court Thursday; he went through stretching drills with Lakers athletic performance coordinator Alex McKechnie long after Bryant and Jackson had made their way toward the team bus. Artest would also be the last player to get on the bus because he went to lift weights after running off the court.

"[Artest] seems to find the rhythm of the guy he's playing against," Jackson said. "He hones in on that and actually had success against Durant in the first two games we played them.

"He analyzes what we're trying to get accomplished on the defense and he's willing to put himself on the line out there. Sometimes I have to remind myself to get him in the game because he changes the game. Artest has been playing the way we envisioned him playing defensively, taking balls away from guys and getting strips and changing the game around. He's developed into the player we hoped he would be."

While Artest has become a difference-maker on defense, Lamar Odom has more than sufficiently filled in for Andrew Bynum in the Lakers' starting lineup while the center recovers from a strained left Achilles' tendon. Against San Antonio, Odom, who is battling a sore left shoulder, scored 19 points and grabbed 13 rebounds and kept the Lakers in the game in the first half.

"Lamar is playing with a lot of confidence and a lot of aggressiveness," Bryant said. "He knows where to get his spots, especially in the starting rotation. When he's coming off the bench he doesn't have as many opportunities to put up big numbers, but when he's starting he can clearly do that. It just shows his selflessness to come off the bench for this ball club.

Odom said his injury would not cause him to miss any games, but it's a situation Jackson continues to monitor, paying attention to Odom's body language during games -- especially when he's active in the paint.

"He says it gets numb at times when he tries to block a shot or goes up for a layup and gets his arm hit," Jackson said. "There's not a whole lot of movement in there. He still has strength but there's a certain motion that he gets into where it gets difficult. He's still blocking shots and seems to be doing fine. The only thing I don't like to see is that he doesn't release the ball and follow through. He kind of snaps it off. He's been shooting the ball pretty well lately and we want to see him continue that."

Odom's shooting touch has spread to his teammates, in particular his fellow "Bench Mob" players. The Lakers made 10 of 20 3-point shots against the Spurs, with Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown combining to shoot 5-for-6 from beyond the arc.

"We're always a late 3-point shooting team," Jackson said. "We don't spend a lot of time [putting] guys in the corner like a lot of other teams ... because we have a different type of an offense; our [3-point] shots come at a different type of an action. We do focus on it in the latter part of the season. I think guys get their legs and become better shooters as the season goes on. We look forward to some of the guys getting their stride here now."

The Lakers might have a tougher time finding as many open shots against the Thunder as they did against the Spurs because Oklahoma City ranks fifth in the league in defensive efficiency, which is rare for a team as young as the Thunder.

"They're awfully active and athletic," Jackson said. "Their defense is predicated a lot on steals, turnovers, tough shots and blocks. They run out very well from that; most of our practice was concentrated on spacing, taking care of the basketball and getting the shots we want to get and not worrying so much about controlling the perimeter offensively and defensively. We have to keep the crowd out of it."

The Lakers have been talking about getting on a winning streak heading into the playoffs, but Bryant says he isn't simply focused on continuing the current seven-game winning streak as the team finishes out the regular season.

"The way I look at it is you want to shorten your to-do list," Bryant said. "Going into the playoffs you always look at things you can do better, and we have to shorten that list. I'm talking about mistakes like defensive rotation mistakes, rebounding mistakes; things like that. You want to eliminate as much of that as possible."

When Jackson sat down with his staff before practice Thursday and looked at the standings, his longtime trainer, Chip Schaefer, who has won 10 championships with Jackson in Chicago and Los Angeles, said the Lakers were obligated to beat the Thunder after beating the Spurs and not just because it would give the team their eighth straight win.

"Chip the illustrious trainer said now that we took a game away from San Antonio it's only fair that we do it to the Thunder because they're in a dead heat," Jackson said. "Fair is fair."

Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Arash Markazi

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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