Artest's help sometimes hurts
Still finding his role in the offense, the Lakers newcomer lacks a little savvy
LOS ANGELES -- It's hard to say exactly where Ron Artest was going or what he was doing, except that he wasn't going where he should have been or doing what the Lakers needed.
Later, Phil Jackson would enjoy a laugh at his expense.
"It's one of the more unusual sequences I've ever witnessed," Jackson joked.
But really, later, after the Celtics had stolen home-court advantage away from the Lakers in a 103-94 win Sunday at Staples Center, laughter was probably the only safe way of processing Artest's mind-boggling play in the final minute of the game.
The Lakers were down 98-90 when Artest decided to play a game of Marco Polo out on the court, burning off 13 valuable seconds as the Lakers attempted to rally.
But in those 13 seconds, Artest dribbled the ball across the timeline, looked to shoot but didn't, then looked to pass to Andrew Bynum but didn't, dribbled across the key, then in a circle at the top of the key, then to the left side of the court. He finally squared up for an awkward leaner around Paul Pierce that clanked off the rim, and you saw exactly what the Lakers might be missing this time around against the Celtics: savvy.
Savvy is one of those mysterious words we use in sports to describe experience and the ability to think clearly and react efficiently under pressure.
Here, instead, is how Artest explained those 13 seconds of futility:
What were you doing on that play?
"I don't know," Artest said.
Was that a smart play?
"I don't know. That depends, it felt good though."
Were you just looking for someone to pass to on that play? Was no one popping open?
"Um, I'm not sure. Yeah, I'm not sure."
Did it feel like you were dribbling around forever?
"I'm not sure. When you're in the game you don't really know how many seconds, you just play."
Phil Jackson said that you might've been trying to redeem yourself?
"Hmm, Phil just thinks ... I guess he's assuming."
Coming into these NBA Finals, it was assumed this series would be decided in the trenches.
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Two games in, with the Lakers still looking like the more physical team, a new front has opened up in this war.
A front the Lakers shouldn't have to worry about as they swagger around as last season's champions. Their nerve and mettle have been tested many times over and stood up to the hottest playoff furnace.
Except for one guy, of course.
The new guy.
He's still learning how to play at this time of year. How to try hard, but not so hard it actually takes you out of plays. How to manage a game, even as you're managing your own emotions.
"Ron played one of those flip-flop games tonight," Jackson said. "Defensively Paul Pierce is 2-for-11, Ron Artest is 1-for-10. I don't know, it wasn't the best battle out there, but obviously Paul's team won, and that's the difference."
Artest was brought here for his defense, which he has more than lived up to in these playoffs. In this series he has admirably shut down Pierce, the Finals MVP in 2008.
If that's all he did, the Lakers would be ecstatic.
But that's rarely all he does. While he has had some offensive highlights -- his put-back buzzer-beater in Game 5 of the Phoenix series, his 25 points in Game 6 against the Suns -- he's also still trying to find his flow in the Lakers offense, no doubt thinking he needs to contribute to the cause.
On a night like Sunday, when he was 1-for-10 from the field -- including that awful leaner with 59 seconds left -- what he did offensively, offensively (yes, pun intended) counteracted what he did defensively.
His offensive forays are well-intentioned. Just about everything Ron Artest does is well-intentioned. He genuinely wants to win, has no problem sacrificing his individual stats for the opportunity to win a title and has blended in well to a veteran team.
It's just that in trying to help, he sometimes hurts the team.
"You know, he's just trying to redeem himself," Jackson said, of Artest's 13-second romp around the court. "He's trying to get himself involved in the game and trying to redeem himself for ... a bad pass he made [to Bynum] earlier in that sequence."
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That may be so, or it may be Jackson "assuming," as Artest terms it.
Either way, Artest wasn't going where he should've been going or doing what the Lakers needed him to be doing.
Fortunately, savvy is a quality that can be learned if someone is open to learning.
"Trying too hard? I don't know that I was trying too hard," Artest said. "Maybe, uh, maybe just play better. Basically, play better.
"Team-wise first and then individually second. They both coexist with each other but play better team-wise and then individually. But it happens. I've been through this already, where I had a bad game and then I bounced back the next time.
"I just have to do things better. I think that'll help the team."
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com.