- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- About a week ago Ron Artest lingered after practice with a small group of reporters, sitting down on an exercise machine and talking about his progress this postseason, when somebody mentioned it took Trevor Ariza about a full season to fully grasp the Lakers' system, too.
"You're going to compare me to him?" Artest asked, pained by the name.
You're always going to be compared to him, we told him, after their free-agent swap last offseason landed Ariza in Houston and Artest in Los Angeles. Many people thought Artest's mind was already in La La Land, but now his body would be, too.
"How?" Artest continued. "Anybody that compares me to Trevor doesn't really know a lot about basketball."
Artest didn't want the scrutiny after he started the playoffs shooting just 12-of-40 from the field and 3-of-23 on 3-pointers in the Lakers' first four games against the Thunder, with L.A. going just 2-2. He knew Ariza was key to the Lakers' playoff run last year by bombing away from deep and coming up with game-saving steals in the Denver series.
Meanwhile, Artest had made headlines with his hairstyles and a Twitter tantrum.
Now it's time to compare him to Ariza after his 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting in Wednesday's 124-112 Game 2 victory. After his three made 3-pointers. After his five rebounds, three assists and two steals, including one in the fourth quarter when the Suns were threatening and cut the Lakers' lead back down to single digits.
It's time not only to compare the two but also to admit that Artest just might be the better fit.
"I think once the playoffs came around, he probably put a little too much pressure on himself to produce, to perform," Kobe Bryant said.
At the end the first quarter, Bryant found Artest in the corner for a 3-ball to beat the buzzer -- one of Kobe's 13 assists, a career playoff high -- and walked toward Artest with two index fingers pointed at him and a sly grin on his face. Bryant delivered a similar pass when Artest was camped out in the opposite corner of the court during the regular-season game in Memphis, and Artest missed the potential game winner as the buzzer sounded, going 1-for-9 that game, perhaps the lowest point of his season.
"He just had to settle in and play like he's used to playing," Bryant said.
Said Artest, still in full uniform and standing in the middle of the locker room: "It's about that time now. It's about that time to just play, play basketball."
Artest got to where he is today by revisiting a shooting ritual he used to do in his days in Sacramento. He was always one of the first Kings players to arrive at the arena before the game to get up extra shots. On Wednesday, Artest was on the court by 3:30 in the afternoon, hoisting them up with Lakers scout Rasheed Hazzard.
"I guess it helped a little bit," Artest said, who also has been helped by shedding the protective pad on his left shoulder and the heavy tape on his left thumb that he wore earlier in the playoffs. "For some reason, you do things and they work and you go again to it. Sometimes you sleep on the left side of the bed and wake up on the right, and when you go to sleep on the right and wake up on the left, your whole day is messed up. I just wanted to go back and sleep on the left side of the bed and wake up on the right."
It sure woke up his shooting.
Artest had 15 points in the first half as the Lakers leapt out to a nine-point lead, and he kept pace with the Suns' two leading scorers combined, with half as many shot attempts. Amare Stoudemire and Jason Richardson joined forces to score 20 points in the half but needed 15 shots to get there, while Artest went 5-of-7 (3-of-5 on 3-pointers).
"He's been working on it," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "You know, he's taking the shots that are there. He bailed us out on a number of shots tonight. I thought he played a great first half."
Artest put Kevin Durant in a straightjacket in the first round versus the Thunder and guarded everybody from Deron Williams to Carlos Boozer in the second round versus the Jazz. Now that he's playing supremely both ways against the Suns, how can you not consider him to at least be Ariza's equal?
Here are Ariza's numbers from last year's playoffs: 11.3 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.7 3-pointers made, 49.7 percent from the field, 47.6 percent from 3-point range and 56.3 percent from the foul line.
Here are Artest's numbers during the Lakers' current eight-game winning streak: 12.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.6 3-pointers made, 45.1 percent from the field, 32.5 percent from 3-point range and 58.3 percent from the foul line.
"Not too many wing defenders can shut guys down, and then you have to pay attention and watch them spotting up; he can get his own in the post," Lamar Odom said about his old AAU teammate from their days growing up together in New York. "Not too many guys can score 20 and lock their man up; that's the one guy in the NBA that kind of does it every year."
On that day after practice about a week ago, Artest elaborated why he wanted to nix all the talk about him and Ariza.
Artest would talk about his defense, sure.
"I held guys to zero points before, two points, seven points, five points, guys in their prime," Artest said. "Totally in their prime and the NBA loves them and then I go: zero points -- Ron Artest. Who can do that?"
But Ariza? No chance Artest would talk about him.
"First off, he's a champion, that's first off," Artest said. "I respect the champion more than that individual. Individually, how are you going to compare that?
"People with rings, I can't talk to them. I'm not worthy, I'm not worthy at all.
"You can't compare us because he's a champion. You can't compare me to [Dennis] Rodman because he's a five-time champion. It's impossible."
The Lakers are just two wins away from a third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. Bryant has been brilliant, Pau Gasol has been potent, but Ron Artest, finally, has arrived.
"Just move on to the next day, like I always say, move on," Artest said. "Go on to the next day and get ready for the next story."
If he keeps playing the way he's been playing, the story will continue to be about him.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.