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Ron Artest assumes utility role

NEW ORLEANS -- Ron Artest is in playoff mode.

"At this time of the year it's more just everything on my mind is execution," he said. "That's all I think about."

Well, it's not all he thinks about.

Artest has taken up a running gag since the team arrived in New Orleans, keeping tabs on the Los Angeles Lakers staffers that made the trip.

At Friday's shootaround, he chided the Lakers director of video services, Chris Bodaken, for not stepping on the court and helping to chase down rebounds for the players.

At Saturday's practice, he yelled across the cavernous gym in Westwego, La., to acknowledge Lakers physical therapist Judy Seto for seeing that Matt Barnes was shooting free throws alone on a basket and stationing herself under the hoop to assist him.

"Thank you, Judy ,for noticing Matt! Thank you, Judy!"

(Rebounding, for the record, is not part of neither Bodaken's nor Seto's job descriptions.)

Through the first three games of the Lakers' first-round series against the New Orleans Hornets, Artest has gone above and beyond his usual role with the team, so while he may tease about rebounding, at least he's leading by example.

Artest is averaging 13.3 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 46.7 percent from the floor, 44.4 percent from 3-point range and a perfect 8-for-8 from the foul line through L.A.'s 2-1 start to the postseason. It's a spiked improvement across the board from his regular-season averages of 8.5 points and 3.3 rebounds on 39.7 percent shooting overall and 35.6 percent from deep.

In Game 1, Artest had 16 points and 11 rebounds and Lakers coach Phil Jackson praised him as the best player L.A. had on the court. He followed that effort with 15 points and six rebounds in Game 2, managing to score 15-plus points in consecutive games for just the second time all season. He finished with nine points and two rebounds in Game 3, but seven of those points came in a tone-setting first quarter when the Lakers went into a raucous road arena and built a 30-23 lead through the first frame.

He even threw down a powerful one-handed dunk in the first quarter on Friday, drawing an and-1 foul in the process after which he kissed his biceps in celebration. He had just five dunks in 82 games in the regular season.

"He's filled gaps for us all season long," Jackson said when asked about Artest at Friday's shootaround. "When other people aren't scoring, he's filled a gap and I think that's the biggest clue. It's not about Ron having to score 15 points, but we know when nobody else is filling their role, his points, that's the key for us to win.

"We're not overdoing it. Ron's just playing his part the way he should."

Pau Gasol bounced back from just 16 points combined in Games 1 and 2 to score 17 in Game 3, so Artest's offense wasn't needed throughout the game. So, could he do it again if called upon?

"It just depends what's going on," Artest said Saturday while wearing a blue New York Mets hat atop his head and a black T-shirt with "Go Loco" printed on it in white letters across his chest. "If I need to step it up, I will. It's not a problem. It's something that I like to do. It's something that I've done for a long time. I don't need to if Kobe [Bryant is] going and Pau's going and Drew [Andrew Bynum is] going. I just sit back and do the correct rotations, box out, try to crash the boards. I'm totally fine with having two points. It's not a problem. It's not a problem at all."

Bryant, the team's co-captain, supported Artest's claim.

"He's engaged all the time," Bryant said. "He doesn't care whether he's shooting 1-for-5 or 1-for-3. He doesn't think about that. He plays hard all the time."

In fact, Bryant emulated Artest in Game 2, taking only 10 shots, he says, to prove a point to his teammates that they can still impact a game defensively even if they're not getting touches on offense.

While Artest has increased his mental focus, he's limited his physical exertion.

"I know I'm getting older, so I'm trying to conserve energy," Artest told reporters in between Games 2 and 3. He's cut out extended shooting sessions after practice and you won't find him hitting the treadmill at all hours of the night, as was his ritual in the postseason last year.

He doesn't use the extra time saved on the court and transfer it to time scouting video, however.

"We play teams so much, so the coaches got a great game plan," Artest said. "It's great that we got good coaches because I don't have to watch film. I just listen to them and do exactly what they ask."

Artest says he lives moment to moment, so his success in Games 1-3 will have no bearing on how he plays in Sunday's Game 4, but Jackson disagrees.

"Ron's very much a momentum guy," Jackson said. "He can ride that for a while."

In fact, Jackson said that Artest can take responsibility for the Lakers' extended 17-1 run following the All-Star break as much as anybody.

"[It was] a lot due to Ron and his focus and his ability to play and do the things that he does really well," Jackson said.

In the 18 games, Artest shot 50 percent or better from the field eight times and collected two or more steals 10 times.

While Artest's early postseason success this year is conjuring memories of his game-winning putback against Phoenix and his all-important 20-point Game 7 against Boston last year, he isn't thinking about the championship ring he won last year and auctioned off to raise more than half a million dollars for mental health charities.

He wants another one.

"The last game don't matter, the last shot don't matter, not in the playoffs," Artest said. "You don't have time to worry about what happened yesterday or what happened before. Not in these playoffs. You have to worry about what you can do to move forward. That's all you can do. Keep moving forward. Keep moving forward."

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.