EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The marquee matchup in the Lakers-Thunder series pits former defensive player of the year Ron Artest against current NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant in a battle of brute strength versus skilled length.
On the eve of Artest's first playoff game as a member of the Lakers, the fifth team of his 11-year career, Artest remembered all the guys he locked down on defense to get him here.
"I've been guarding the best players through my career," Artest said. "It's not like something new. When I first got into the league, it was Allan Houston and [Latrell] Sprewell. Then it was J.R. Rider. Of course the Great Black Mamba, it was LeBron [James], it was [Paul] Pierce. There's more coming. There's Durant and there's going to be some more coming because I got a good five years left in these defensive legs."
All Los Angeles fans are worried about is whether he has a good five games left in his legs, or four, or six, or seven or however many it takes the Lakers to get past Oklahoma City, led by Durant's 30.1 points per game.
As the player he guards has changed, Artest has stayed the same.
"Everybody can [score] in a different way, what I try to do is to play defense the same way," Artest said. "I just play defense how I play defense and I don't really get into what's special about these guys."
So forgive him for not guffawing about Durant's 6-foot-9 body and 7-5 wingspan, or the fact Durant led the league in both field goals made and free throws made in only his third season in the league.
Said Lakers coach Phil Jackson: "He always has a tough defensive assignment, so that's no big deal."
Still, for all of the supposed mind games Jackson played by crediting Durant's scoring acumen to friendly referees rather than outright talent earlier this week, he knows Artest will have his hands full.
"I'm sure this will be a see-saw series," Jackson said about the Artest-Durant matchup. "Some nights the hunter will get the bear and some nights the bear might get the hunter, but he's going to have an effect."
While the Lakers know what they're going to get form Artest's defense, the same cannot be said for the small forward's offense. Artest averaged a career-low 11.0 points and shot 41.4 percent from the field this season. He comes into the postseason struggling with his stroke, shooting an even more anemic 34.4 percent from the field in the seven games L.A. played in April.
"I don't put expectations on Ron," Jackson said. "I tell him he doesn't have to score for us to win, but he has to play defense and hustle. He looks to pass the ball, a lot of time he gets assists in our offense and does things that are good enough without scoring. He doesn't have to force things to get involved for us, but he does have to take good shots."
Artest contends he has turned the corner when it comes to the triangle.
"I had ups and downs earlier," Artest said. "I came in just practicing myself in the summertime, coming here and I was on my A game and then the triangle came and I was stuck. The door was kind of jammed, or something like that, and then I got used to it. And as I got used to it, I was able to not worry about scoring as much as make sure that everything was flowing. Sometimes you'll see us win -- like in Utah, I had three points but we won by about 20 or 15, I can't remember -- but the flow is there. It's really important how the flow is. As long as the triangle is flowing, everything will be fine."
Derek Fisher says he thinks the playoffs will be enough of a motivator to harness even somebody as scatterbrained as Artest to executing to the best of their ability.
"I think earlier in the season, there were a lot of things that Ron did just not know and as he's gotten more comfortable throughout the season," Fisher said. "I think he's had to figure out how to fit himself into what we're trying to do and we've had to try to learn how to create opportunities for him to fit into the things we're trying to do. But, the postseason just has a way of lasering everybody's focus."
The long and winding road
After finishing two straight seasons in the NBA Finals with mixed results -- a loss in '08 and a win in '09 -- the Lakers are familiar with what it feels like to experience the ultimate emotion from both ends of the spectrum.
"We're very passionate about winning and how good it feels to be the best," Lamar Odom said. "It hurts more to lose. It feels good to win. It feels too good. Losing makes you cry and winning makes you cry a little harder."
Fisher describes the process of doing it all over again like driving down a road the team has navigated before.
"It makes it tougher, when you've taken a long journey before and you've made some wrong turns and then got back to the right place and finally made it to that end destination," Fisher said. "The second time around, you think you can get there faster because you know, 'Last time I turned right there, and that was a dead end.' So you skip that street and then you get up farther up the street and you make a left turn and you forgot, 'Oh yeah, that was a dead end that way too.'
"So, things tend to multiply when you think that you've done something before and so now I can get there quicker. It actually takes longer. That's the difficult part about winning multiple championships, in particular, consecutively. It takes longer. People know you're coming the second time down the road, so there are trees lying down in the middle of the road, spikes lying out; highway patrol is waiting for you. You got to slow down a little bit. It's just a totally different road to the title and it's hard to convince yourself that it's a different road."
According to Jackson, all of the pitfalls make it tempting to search for an easier route.
"We're still very determined that they have to execute and make sure that they don't take short cuts," Jackson said. "That's really one of the things that happen, players try to shorten steps basically to save space, save energy and at this point, they can't do that."
Pau Gasol echoed Odom's quest for tears of joy.
"It might be a little different, but it's still the same," Gasol said. "We still got to prove a lot. We still have the desire of winning again. We know how great that is and how much it sucks to lose it. We just don't want to pass up on the opportunity that we have here."
The team that eats together ...
The Lakers are trying to practice what Fisher preached Thursday, when the co-captain delivered a speech to the team, imploring everyone to "put all your personal stuff down" during the playoffs and come together as one. It started with them all sacrificing a night at home with their families or out on the town by getting together for a team meal Friday night at a steakhouse.
"Time that we can spend aside from basketball, aside from the basketball court I think is always a positive thing for us to bond and talk to each other about more than just plays and basketball," Gasol said. "It went well."
And how about the steak?
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.