Ron Artest feeling connected
The Lakers have learned how to treat their wild card, with remarkable results
LOS ANGELES -- For months, Ron Artest drifted. Lingering and lost out on his island in the corner of the court, waiting to be engaged and for passes that rarely came.
In the sea of problems the Lakers swam through during the middle part of the season, the disconnect with Artest became a dangerous undercurrent.
Players whispered. Coaches discussed it at length in meetings. Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss even invited Artest to lunch on several occasions, most recently during the Lakers' trip to Oklahoma City in late February, to show him how much the organization cared about him.
The Lakers never doubted his value to the team. But they had to wonder whether the player who became so invaluable to their championship run last season would be able to resurrect himself in time for another run.
Even Artest recognized the problem and why so many people were working so hard to fix it.
"I'm just not playing the right way," he said in a quiet moment in the locker room before the Lakers' win in Boston in February.
His discomfort both on and off the court was obvious. What began last season as a struggle to learn the triangle offense and mesh into an already-formed championship team had deteriorated into a confounding funk in Year 2.
It was as if he had geared himself up to deal with one season of discomfort while he adapted to his new role with the Lakers, but when things didn't change or improve much over the offseason, the frustration he'd been suppressing doubled.
As his place, his role, felt less defined, his connection to the rest of the team withered.
To his credit, Artest kept his mouth shut. He'd worked hard to rebuild his reputation after the fight in Detroit that nearly ended his career and wasn't going to undo all that by venting to the press.
Instead, he just worked hard on his outside shooting and conditioning. Trying to be professional and stay prepared for the role he'd been cast in.
"I'm not going to complain if it doesn't work," he said. "I'm going to blame myself.
"But I don't back off, though. I don't stop asserting myself, even if I come out looking bad. I'd always rather look bad before I retreat. Because with this team, every game counts."
It's hard to say exactly where and when the situation started to right itself. It has happened gradually over time, through gestures small and large from both sides.
But after the way Artest helped the Lakers close out the Suns in a thrilling triple-overtime win over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, it's clear Artest is heading back in the right direction.
"I just think his mood is really good," Jackson said. "He's having fun. He's enjoying his activity and what he contributes to the team.
"I think he recharged at the All-Star break. He kind of recharged and got back on the beam."
Artest's scoring, rebounding, assists and shooting percentages have all noticeably improved since the All-Star break, neatly coinciding with the Lakers' NBA-best 13-1 record during that span.
The victory over the Suns was easily his most important game of the season as he scored seven of his 18 points during the three overtime periods, reminding everyone of his playoff heroics last year.
"It was cool," Lakers forward Lamar Odom said. "A basket in those situations really could be worth 20 points as far as what it does to the team.
"He made some big plays, especially sometimes when we get into that isolation with Kobe and they start hanging off him and it's time for somebody to drive the ball and make a play. Ron is tough."
As both men walked through the Staples Center corridors after the game, Odom spotted Artest out of the corner of his eye, broke stride to come over and rub the top of his head, and yelled out, "Good game, son. Good game."
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It was a personal touch between childhood friends. But it hinted at the affection and personal attention from Artest's teammates and staff that seems to have spurred his post-All-Star break resurrection.
So much of what seemed to be wrong before came down to Artest's connection with the rest of the team.
He has always gotten along well with his teammates. Besides Odom, there might not be another player in the Lakers locker room as well-liked as Artest.
But the awkwardness Artest felt on the court, in the Lakers' system, and with Jackson, spiraled into a disconnect that boiled over in early January when Artest and Jackson got into an argument over the coaches' habit of criticizing him through the media.
After the incident -- which subsequently leaked to the press -- both men resolved to handle things more discreetly. Artest would come to Jackson in private when he was frustrated, and Jackson would discuss his criticisms with Artest first, before speaking to the media.
"Since then, he's been really good for me," Artest said of his relationship with Jackson following their argument. "I had to basically let him know how I felt, and he had to let me know how he wanted me to play.
"I was trying to let him know that I'm going to do exactly what he needs me to do, and just work on our communication. We've only known each other for a year."
That was only one part of the solution.
As the trade deadline approached in mid-February, and Artest's name swirled in rumors from Denver to Charlotte, he couldn't help but feel insecure about his place on the team.
Artest is still a proud man with a healthy confidence in his abilities as a basketball player. He has already had to swallow a lot of his pride to play for the Lakers and accept that he'll never be more than a third or fourth option offensively here.
So it stung to hear his name in trade rumors and think that the Lakers might not want him anymore.
Behind the scenes, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and Artest's agent, David Bauman, worked to keep Artest feeling wanted and connected with the team.
"Mitch was constantly reaching out to me," Bauman said. "He just kept reiterating: 'Tell Ron we love him.'"
The Lakers were in Portland on Feb. 23, the night before the NBA trade deadline. Bauman sent Artest a text message before the game letting him know he wasn't going anywhere, and relaying Kupchak's message.
Artest scored a season-high 24 points in the Lakers' 106-101 win.
As important as it was to reconnect Artest to the team and the coaching staff, it was equally important to reintegrate him on the court.
It might sound a little simplistic, but the Lakers' staff realized that the fastest way to do that was just to get Artest to touch the ball more on offense.
"I think when he gets some touches, not even necessarily to shoot it all the time, but if every now and then he gets a chance to have the ball in his hands, I think that makes him feel a lot better," assistant coach Jim Cleamons said.
It might not seem like much, but it matters greatly for a player who has been the first option on almost every team he'd ever played for.
"Sometimes, if I don't touch the ball, I might not be ready for Kobe, to help him out at the end," Artest said after Tuesday's win. "So I've tried to get a little more aggressive.
"Once I get aggressive early, I can chill in the corner for like the whole game because I have a rhythm. Once I get a rhythm, that opens up everything."
Artest was one of only two starters Jackson chose to play all 12 minutes of the first quarter in Tuesday night's triple-overtime win over the Suns. He hit two of his first four shots, grabbed two rebounds and was active defensively.
It's a small thing, but the respect and inclusiveness it signals to Artest is huge.
For months he had drifted. Lost and looking to find his place again.
The way back began with a simple invitation back into the group.
"We're talking specifically about Ron," Cleamons said. "But even if you're talking about basketball in general, when people are included, you get better reactions from them."
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.