- Arash Markazi, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- "I thought we gave 100 percent physically. Mentally, I'm not sure. I think mentally we need to get better."
It might seem like a clichéd quote on the surface until you realize the constructive criticism, issued after the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Oklahoma City Thunder, 87-79, in their playoff opener, was uttered by none other than Ron Artest, arguably the most colorful and mentally unstable player in the NBA.
That's right, the player most figured was too much of a head case to fit in with the Lakers is giving his teammates psychological advice.
Wasn't Artest supposed to have gotten himself into trouble by now? Wasn't he scheduled for a meltdown at some point already? Slated to run into the stands or get into the face of an opponent?
If you were expecting a Dennis Rodman-like sideshow with Artest this season, he's been a colossal letdown. The only intrigue he's caused off the court was suffering a concussion outside of his house after Christmas that caused him to miss five games. That's it. Besides that, he's played and started in 77 games, the most in his career.
Perhaps the only thing that could be labeled a distraction when talking about Artest this season is his ever-changing hairdo, which is now a dirty golden hue after having been everything from the Jimmy Kimmel Live! logo to the word defense in three languages -- Hebrew, Hindi and Japanese -- inscribed in it. And really, if that's the only foible we can come up with, aren't we just splitting hairs over a player who always seems to be in the crosshairs?
Artest as the enemy
Artest is sitting in front of his locker with nothing but a towel covering his lap as he answers questions from a throng of media members who want to know how he held the league's leading scorer, Kevin Durant, to 24 points on 7-of-24 shooting. While the rest of the Lakers change into tailored suits before addressing the media, Artest usually speaks in his birthday suit and a properly placed towel. Then again, this is the same guy who walked onto the set of Kimmel's show for an interview in his boxers.
Everyone wants to know if Artest's performance against Durant was why he was signed by the Lakers. If this was the Artest the Lakers thought they'd be getting in the offseason and if he's capable of sustaining his defensive effort.
It's the kind of question Artest has heard time and again this season after he's had a good game. He heard it after he made a runner in the lane to pull the Lakers to within one and then drew an offensive foul while guarding Paul Pierce to set up Kobe Bryant's game-winner in Boston on Jan. 31. He heard it one month later after he hounded Carmelo Anthony, forcing him into eight turnovers and frustrating him to the point he pushed off on Artest late in the game to foul out. And he heard it last month in San Antonio after he had five steals, one blocked shot and 12 points in the second half as the Lakers came back from a 10-point deficit to beat the Spurs.
Considering Artest's signature games this season have come against the likes of Pierce, Anthony and Manu Ginobili, it's no surprise Artest shined in his Lakers playoff debut against Durant. He understands he will be judged on how the Lakers perform in the postseason. As the only change the Lakers made in the off-season after essentially swapping fan-favorite and local product Trevor Ariza, who signed with the Houston Rockets after Artest left the Rockets to sign with the Lakers, anything less than winning another championship would be a failure.
"I'm going to hold myself accountable, definitely, for what I do," Artest said. "We don't feel that losing's an option."
Lakers point guard Derek Fisher had almost forgotten the image of Artest as the enemy until he recently saw his wife, Candace, looking at pictures from last season's grueling seven-game series with the Rockets while she was online at their home.
"There's a picture from last year when Ron was all in Kobe's ear and he had the Rockets logo cut in the side of his hair, and I just laughed," Fisher said. "These guys are on the same team now. This is going to be fun. Like I told him before, he's going to be more than instrumental in this opportunity that we have, and that's why he came here. He made sacrifices to come here and now it's his time to show why he came here."
Artest didn't have to think long about any financial sacrifice he'd have to make by signing with Los Angeles for a mid-level deal worth $33.5 million over five years on this first day of free agency. It was the same deal the Lakers had offered Ariza before he turned it down hoping for a more lucrative offer after his performance in the playoffs. The Lakers, unwilling to pay Ariza more and also wanting to re-sign Lamar Odom, offered the same deal to Artest, who quickly accepted. Ironically, Ariza would sign the same deal to replace Artest in Houston.
The two are now linked in the minds of fans and reporters whose perception of the Artest-for-Ariza swap will be dictated by the Lakers' ability to repeat as champions. Artest even publicly stated if the Lakers don't win a championship this season he should be the one blamed.
"We won a championship, and he's replacing a guy from a championship team," Odom said. "I'm pretty sure that was his thought when he first came here, but we tell him not to feel pressure. We have too many good players for him to feel pressure. Ron is with us now, Trevor is our guy but he's no longer here."
Judging Artest's success solely on the Lakers' performance in the playoffs is a simplistic way of gauging the impact of a player who is a piece but far from the centerpiece of the team. It's also short-sided when you consider Ariza had been playing in the triangle offense for well over a year before it began to click for him.
Ariza's statistics last season (8.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 31.9 percent from 3-point range) were not as good as Artest's this season (11.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 35.5 percent from beyond the arc). The difference, of course, was Ariza improved his numbers across the board in the postseason, most importantly hitting 47.6 percent of his 3-pointers and making timely steals at the end of games. Whether or not Artest can have a similar bump in his numbers in the playoffs will dictate how his addition to the Lakers is viewed by fans and critics alike.
"It doesn't boil down to that individual thing," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said of Artest being judged on whether or not the Lakers win a title. "A lot of people forget that most of the season last year we had Luke [Walton] starting at times, we had [Vladamir] Radmanovic starting at times and Trevor always wanted to come off the bench, and we liked that role for him because he gave our team a big punch off the bench. But there came a time when injuries and the trade of Radmanovic where we made him a starter, so he started late and finished really strong for us and that impact had a big effect on our team."
Student of the game
As much of a free spirit as Artest seems off the court, when it comes to basketball, he's a student of the game and is used to a structure he can follow. Show him how to do something once and chances are you won't have to tell him again.
The problem for Artest is there is no shortcut for learning the triangle. It's almost like learning how to tango. You can take classes but until you feel it and are on the same page with your partner, you're going to continually step on each other's feet.
"Ron really tries hard," Jackson said. "He has some characteristics about him that take a little while to recognize. He likes things cut and dry and likes to have precise things, and this is a free-flowing offense. Even though we have basic concepts, you're pretty much free to do anything but drive the baseline when the corner is filled. That's basically what I tell them. If the triangle is filled, don't drive on top of the center. That's it."
While Artest has had to learn under the spotlight and microscope of playing in Los Angeles, Ariza was able to learn the intricacies of the offense while he sat out much of his first Lakers season with a stress fracture in his right foot.
"He got all that time to practice when he didn't have to do anything in game," Jackson said of Ariza. "So he had almost a year with us before he really got out there and played. The timing is the big thing in this offense, it takes a little timing and how you're going to regulate and move the ball."
If Artest has had a eureka moment in learning the triangle, and he said isn't sure if he's had one yet, he believes it came Feb. 10 in Utah when the Lakers -- without Bryant and Andrew Bynum -- snapped the Jazz's nine-game winning streak despite Artest scoring only three points. For months Artest had struggled with understanding he could be just as dominant as a defender and a facilitator rather than being the scorer he was accustomed to being at his previous stops in Chicago, Indiana, Sacramento and Houston.
"Early on it was tough," Artest said. "I had my ups and downs early on. I'd come by myself and practice and I was stuck and the door was kind of jammed and then I got used to it. As I got used to it, I didn't worry about scoring as much as make sure everything was flowing."
Even though he won't admit it after his defensive performance against Durant, playing against a scorer like that is what Artest plays for. "Defense is like a drug to me," Artest said after beating San Antonio last month. "Eventually, as I get older, that drug won't be there no more because your body is going to deteriorate. But while I still got that drug, I love it."
Before the Lakers played the Thunder in Oklahoma City toward the end of the regular season, Jackson and Bryant took a seat on the scorer's table at Ford Center and began watching 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."
Despite containing Durant in Game 1, Artest still wasn't satisfied with his performance and said he would go back to the game tape and find ways to make life harder on Durant. "If somebody else did that they'd be happy, but I've been guarding the best player my whole career," he said. "I'm more satisfied with the team than myself."
Artest may still be in the learning process when it comes to adjusting to the triangle and his role on the Lakers, but the time for smoothing out those rough edges has passed with the start of the playoffs.
"There are no excuses anymore," Artest said. "Just go out there and win. It's enough about being comfortable or trying to find your way or whatever. That's long gone. You have to go out there and play, and if you're not comfortable it's your fault."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
Ron Artest's Lakers journey has been about a title repeat.