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It is a fitting word choice, because attempting to "go through" Indiana's defense can be hazardous to one's health. The rugged D starts with Artest, who plays as if he's a linebacker instructed to blitz on every down. Picking up the opposition's best perimeter player, whether it's a point guard or a 6'10" forward, Artest pokes and prods and bumps him into submission. Asked how much contact Artest absorbs, Carlisle frowns. "I don't like the word absorbs," he says. "Ron's like Jim Brown was as a running back: When people tackled him, they got physically punished." Through Sunday, Artest was third in the league with 2.15 steals per game, and opposing starters at small forward, his primary assignments, were averaging just 9.8 points when he was in the lineup. Such is his reputation that, asked to describe Artest's defense last Saturday after the Pacers' forward had five steals in a 99-98 win over the Celtics, Boston guard Paul Pierce merely shook his head and said, "I can't give him any more love. I've given him too much juice already."
On those rare occasions when an opponent eludes Artest, he still has to deal with O'Neal, who at week's end was averaging 2.7 blocked shots to go with 10.5 rebounds. (After straining his neck against Boston, he was listed as day-to-day.) "If Jermaine were into statistics, he could lead the league in blocks," says Carlisle. "But he'd have to break the rules of our system to do it, and that's not the kind of guy he is."
On offense, the duo is equally deadly. At 6'7" and 246 pounds, Artest has the quickness of a guard but the strength to post up many power forwards. Though not a pure shooter, he is a scorer (17.5 points per game through Sunday) with three-point range whose repertoire includes all manner of spin moves, up-and-unders, bull rushes to the basket and midrange jumpers. "He's deceptive because he doesn't look like a great ball handler," says Indiana reserve guard Anthony Johnson, "but believe me, he gets where he wants to go."
O'Neal, on the other hand, is a classic post player who prefers the ball on the right block, where he can take one dribble and drop in a soft jump-hook with either hand, lean back for a fadeaway, or pump fake and spin baseline to the basket, a move so quick and slippery that it brings to mind the light feet of Hakeem Olajuwon. His productivity on offense—he was averaging 20.4 points per game and led the East with 29 double doubles through Sunday—has made him an MVP candidate. Carlisle calls him "our rock" on offense, and Johnson says, "He gets to the basket as quick as any four I've seen."
Put it all together, and you have the league's most multifaceted pair of forwards. The Minnesota Timberwolves' Kevin Garnett and Latrell Sprewell are close, but that's mainly because of Garnett's transcendent abilities. Peja Stojakovic and Chris Webber of the Sacramento Kings are supremely talented offensive players but play average D, while the New Jersey Nets' Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson are but lesser versions of O'Neal and Artest. "Factoring in offense and defense, they're the top forward combo in the league," said one Eastern Conference scout as he watched the Pacers demolish the Phoenix Suns 101-79 last week. "Throw in Harrington, who's becoming a monster, and it's not even close."
Both will likely be All-Stars—the fans voted in O'Neal as a starter, and Artest is a shoo-in to be chosen by the coaches this week—and increasingly they find they have much in common. For one, despite their relative youth, both are settling down. O'Neal proposed to his girlfriend of nine years, Lamesha Roper, at five minutes past midnight on New Year's, presenting her with a 14-carat diamond ring. He says he was motivated in part by the fact that he wanted his four-year-old daughter, Asjia, to grow up with a strong father figure, something he didn't have.
Artest is a step ahead, having married longtime girlfriend Kimesha Hatfield last June. Since then he's been bringing his three children—daughter Sadie, 5, and sons Ron III, 4, and Leron, 2—to games on a regular basis, which he rarely did last season. In the training room Ron III and Leron gleefully climb on the StairMaster and the treadmill, or do pull-ups and push-ups. (Leron can already do five of the latter, his father proudly notes.) Recently, Carlisle was holding a closed-door team meeting when a little head poked into the room. The head, which belonged to Leron, proceeded to request that the TV in the clubhouse family room be changed to the Cartoon Network. As the players chuckled and Carlisle steamed, Artest quickly hustled his son out the door.
All this is not to say that Artest and O'Neal are suddenly best friends, or even that they've become more alike. Case in point: At a photo shoot last week O'Neal calmly posed, occasionally making conversation with the photographers. Next to him Artest fidgeted like a nine-year-old in a doctor's office. He paced, talked to whoever would listen about his poor performance in practice that day ("I was shooting bricks! Bricks!") and took the ball he was supposed to be cradling and bounced it off the wall or off the bright yellow construction paper that served as a photographic background.
Regardless, the two joked around and appeared to be perfectly comfortable together, and to the Pacers, that's all that matters. For while love may indeed conquer all, sometimes plain old like will work just as well.