Artest not getting credit he deserves
No one is acknowledging the quirky Lakers' superior defense against Paul Pierce
"I don't really see anything he's doing special that any other teams haven't done throughout the course of the playoffs," Pierce said. "That's it."
So despite struggling against Artest during the Finals and the regular season, Pierce thinks it's simply a coincidence some of his worst games have come while Artest is guarding him?
"I think so," he said.
Artest has yet to have a breakout game offensively during the Finals, hitting only 2-of-14 shots for eight points in the past two games, but none of that seemed to matter to him as long as Pierce, who has hit 7-of-23 shots for 25 points in the past two games, was held in check. Even though Pierce has played like a shell of the player who won the Finals MVP two years ago, Artest still wasn't happy about his effort against Pierce.
"I feel I haven't been playing defense the way I want to play defense," Artest said. "In Game 4, I want to come out and play better defense and get back to how I'm used to playing defense. I'm giving up things I shouldn't be giving up and not giving enough effort, so in Game 4 I want to improve on that."
While Artest may be modest, the Boston Celtics certainly weren't going to disagree with his assessment. They think Pierce's struggles have everything to do with Pierce and little to do with Artest's defense. When Celtics coach Doc Rivers was asked how Artest is affecting Pierce's play, he said, "I don't think he is."
"I think Paul is getting good shots," Rives said. "He's not making some of them. Maybe Ron has something to do with that, but if we get Paul in rhythm and get him on his spots, I feel very confident that Paul will have big games for the rest of the series."
Artest usually plays his best following games he plays poorly or feels that he has been disrespected. He scored 20 points, hitting 4-of-7 on 3-pointers against the Utah Jazz after they began to ignore him on offense. He scored 25 points, making 10-of-16 from the field and 4-of-7 from 3-point range, to close out the Phoenix Suns when they implemented the same "disrespectful" defensive strategy against him. This is, however, the first time an opponent has basically downplayed Artest's defense.
When Artest was asked about the inevitability of Pierce finding his shooting touch in the series, he stopped the reporter mid-question.
"Who said that?" Artest said. "Who said that it's inevitable? I don't know what the game's going to bring, but I know I'll be playing better defensively. I don't like the way I've been playing defense, so I'm going to make sure I step up."
Artest will often engage reporters and ask them questions when he's getting questioned, and one of the highlights of his repartee with reporters occurred while he stood on the parquet after practice on Wednesday. When he was asked about getting his offense going in Game 4, he laughed and asked, "Why would I want to get my offense going? Why would I want to get it going? What do you want to see me do? Tell me what you want me to do."
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"You don't want to make a basket?" the reporter asked.
"I made a basket yesterday," Artest said. "I had two points."
"Do you think you could score eight points?" the reporter asked.
"Is that what you want?" Artest asked.
"Yeah," the reporter said.
"OK, I'll try," Artest said.
It was vintage Artest, who continually referred to Game 4 as Game 3 and wasn't sure of the Finals' schedule past Thursday's game.
"I don't know what people want from me sometimes," Artest said. "Do they want me to score 20? What do they want? I just want to win. That's it."
That's basically all Artest wanted to do when he signed with the Lakers in the offseason. He knew he could probably make more money elsewhere and be featured more prominently if he went to another team, but he jumped at the mid-level contract Trevor Ariza turned down because he wanted what Ariza already had -- a championship ring.
"I can't be compared to Ariza," Artest said. "If we were playing on-on-one tennis then maybe you can compare who is better, but this is a team sport and Ariza is a champion and you can't compare me to a champion."
Not yet anyway, but if the Lakers win two more games, Artest will not only be a champion, he will prove the Lakers made the right call in going with the tougher, more defensive-minded Artest, who literally took Pierce down 27 seconds into Game 1 of the Finals and set the tone early for the way he would play against the 2008 Final MVP.
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"I'm just thinking about the team and not me," Artest said. "It's not about me versus Paul. I want to play better individually and play better defensively. Everyone says I'm playing good defensively, but I don't see it. I want to play better. If I'm going, it's definitely bad for the other team."
The sacrifices Artest made this season were actually set in motion last year when he came off the bench for the Houston Rockets in a contract year and never asked Rick Adelman to start him ahead of Shane Battier even though he wanted to.
"I sacrificed last year and I learned a lot from Adelman," Artest said. "He taught me how to play team ball. I haven't mastered it yet. That's why I don't get down on myself when I make mistakes offensively because I know I haven't mastered it yet. I want to master playing team ball. It's going to come. There's going to come a day when I'm flawless but I know I'm not perfect and I'm going to make mistakes."
Artest won't ever be flawless but the Lakers don't need him to be to beat the Celtics. They simply need Artest to prevent Pierce from being flawless, and Artest has done his job so far even if the Celtics don't want to give him any credit for it.
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.