Calmly, Artest plays within himself
Ron Artest garnered praise from nearly every direction after his Game 1 output
In a star-studded lineup, the forward stood out simply by calming down
If Artest can continue this disciplined approach, the Lakers will be tough
LOS ANGELES -- Granted, the tens of thousands who showed up at Staples Center last night, and the millions more around the globe who tuned in to the game, did not do so to see the world's best refs doing their thing. Still reffing is what they got -- whistle upon glorious whistle, early and late and debatable and downright specious. And predictably, much of the discussion after the Lakers' 102-89 win centered on all the foul calls, and rightly so, but there is only so much that can be said. As Glen Davis opined afterward, giant headphones propped above his ears like some gargantuan Princess Leia, "The refs are the refs. They human too. They make mistakes."
So, instead the focus moves to Kevin Garnett (who was mostly ineffective) and Pau Gasol (who was entirely effective) and of course Kobe Bryant, who scored 30 of the quietest points imaginable. But, if there was one key factor in the game it was Ron Artest, in part because no other Laker's performance was tougher to predict. After all, this was Artest's first Finals game, and during these playoffs he had, as usual, shown flashes of both brilliance and epic thickheadedness, sometimes in the same :30 span. No player on the roster, or perhaps in the league, is more emotional or prone to letting those emotions affect his play. When I saw Ron prior to the game, he looked like he'd just chugged nine Red Bulls and washed it down with some ephedrine, all jittery hands and short breaths and flitting eyes. During pregame introductions, he nearly decapitated Josh Powell with a flying body bump. And then, all of :27 into the game, he and Paul Pierce went toppling to the court like Greco-Roman wrestlers. "Yeah," Artest allowed after the game, "at that point I probably was a bit emotional --" he paused "fired up."
But then the strangest thing happened: Ron calmed down. And for the next 47 minutes -- or at least the 32 and change he was in the game -- he was remarkably in control, at least by Artest-ian standards. He resisted the urge to "create" on offense, long his Achilles' heel. On defense, he likewise resisted the urge to gamble for steals, instead staying with Pierce, whom he hectored relentlessly. Sure, there was that crazy fast break where he threw the ball in the general direction of the rim and missed entirely, and he got in early foul trouble, but all in all, this was not just the Good Ron Artest, but perhaps the best version. For the game, his plus/minus was +26, by far the highest of any player (Bryant, by comparison, was +6), and he finished with 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting, hitting 3-of-5 three-pointers, with two steals and no turnovers. Afterward, he was praised by everyone from Rajon Rondo ("he hurt us") to coach Phil Jackson ("solidified our defense ... made shot-in-the-arm baskets") to Pierce ("Ron is a great defender ... I don't know what you want me to say.").
But it was the two empathic hugs from Bryant that spoke the loudest, one not long after Artest blocked Davis' shot in the fourth quarter and another at the end of the game.
The beauty, however, was in the details. Like early in the first quarter, when Artest drained his first three-pointer from the top of the key. Without dribbling. Or forcing it. Same was true of most of his possessions. If you watched Artest on offense, you saw a guy who did one of three things: 1) made an entry pass and cleared out to the other wing to wait in the corner, spotting up 2) took an open shot without screwing around with the ball or 3) grabbed the ball and immediately relinquished it to a player better-suited to doing something with it. Now, if you've spent much time watching Artest, you know how important this was, because he can get into all kinds of trouble when he starts driving. Or shooting off the dribble. But, on this night, he stayed within the offense and, when he did shoot a three-pointer on the move, at the end of the third quarter, it might have appeared to be a bad shot except for two things. First, it allowed the Lakers a 2-for-1 opportunity and, vastly more important, he hit it.
On defense, in a game overflowing with touch fouls, Artest managed to body Pierce without fouling out. He bumped, hip-checked and, at all times, kept a hand within smacking distance. Even when another Celtic drove, Artest stayed on the perimeter. And when Pierce twice tried to create fouls -- first bringing his arms up, ala Reggie Miller, through Artest's and later flailing into him on a jumper -- Artest avoided a call on both plays. This was no doubt a product both of Artest's instincts and the refs' respect for a former Defensive Player of the Year. So how do the Celtics combat it? The team strategy, as Michael Finley described it after the game is, "to beat him with speed. Because that's the only way to negate his physicality."
With Artest, of course, the question is how long will this disciplined approach continue? Through Game 2? The whole series? Who knows but Lakers fans will no doubt appreciate it as long at it lasts. And so, I might add, will Artest. Afterward, as affable as ever, he entertained a throng of media. He talked about how he bought tickets for two fans courtside (at $9,000 a pop, a price he says was nearly double from last season), and rated his defense as "decent" and, when someone asked if he was impressed that his team could frustrate the Celtics because Rasheed Wallace got a 'T', turned incredulously and said, "He always gets Ts! Where you been? How old are you?" (also, when told the crowd cheered, encouraging him to take his last three-pointer, he said, "Oh, they told me I can shoot today? Sometimes they tell me I can't shoot."). After 15 minutes, Artest was hustled off to shower. Upon emerging, he again engaged reporters until another Lakers PR ensign hustled them away. Yet still Artest sat there, in only his underwear, hands propped behind his head, reveling in this, his first Finals moment. "You know," he said, "this ain't so bad."
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