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Lakers forward Ron Artest has unenviable task of guarding Kevin Durant

April 18, 2010 |  7:00 am

Ron Artest #4

Seemingly every minute during the off-season, Lakers forward Ron Artest managed to attract attention. He showed up to his introductory news conferenceready to talk all things, including the Lakers, Michael Jackson, TMZ and the infamous Brawl at the Palace. He gave out his private cellphone number during his tour in China and spoke directly to fans. And he arrived in San Diego unaware the city had a baseball team.

Each appearance certainly sparked reactions, and brought a good old time. If nothing else, it showed he had moved beyond the toxic persona he once projected. Yet, intentional or not, it was during his appearance in San Diego that he provided the framework on how fans should view him in the upcoming season after signing to a five-year deal worth $33 million. With the Lakers coming off an NBA championship, Artest told the public to square the blame solely on him if the Lakers didn't repeat in 2010.

"They should. That's exactly what should happen if we don't repeat," he said at the time. "They won last year, and I'm the new addition. The fans expect to repeat. Everybody in L.A. expects a second ring. And if we don't then yeah, they should point it right at me, throwing tomatoes and everything."

The jury is obviously still out on whether fans should start collecting their vegetables, what with the Lakers beginning the playoffs Sunday, Game 1 in a first-round matchup against Oklahoma City. So even if the Lakers went 57-25 and haven't been playing their best basketball, they clearly have time to turn it around. I have  maintained several times that it's too early to say whether the Lakers benefit more from having Artest instead of Trevor Ariza. But it's safe to draw a few conclusions.

Despite his proclamation that he has "gotten used to" the triangle offense, Artest still appears lost in it. His 34.4% shooting from the field in April was his worst in any month this season. On the defensive end, it's a different story. After battling inconsistency partly because of his plantar fasciitis, Artest has held several marquee players under their season averages, including Pacers forward Danny Granger, Denver's Carmelo Anthony, Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala, Dallas' Shawn Marion, Memphis' Rudy Gay, Boston's Paul Pierce and Golden State's Corey Maggette

His next assignment involves trying to slow down Oklahoma forward Kevin Durant, who leads the league in scoring (30.1 points per game) and trips to the free-throw line(10.2 per game). It's an assignment that could have added intrigue considering the back-and-forth Lakers Coach Phil Jackson had with Durant over the Zen Master's assertion that Durant receives favorable treatment from officials.

Artest downplayed the matchup, saying, "I've been guarding the best player all of my career." Jackson did as well, saying, "I don't put expectations on Ron." Nonetheless, it's clear that Artest's playoff performance could determine whether fans laud him for instilling defensive toughness in the team, or throw tomatoes at him as if he performed a bad comedy routine. 

When a reporter revisited Artest's comments in San Diego, he didn't directly address them. But it rang clear that he attempted to distance himself from his earlier proclamations.

"We're at a point now where we're a unit," Artest said. "We're a strong unit. I'm going to hold myself accountable definitely for what I do, but we're definitely a unit. We don't feel losing is an option."

Even if Artest can't rewrite "Sacred Hoops,"his sketchy knowledge of the triangle offense won't make or break the Lakers. I had often joked during the Live Chat that the proper solution might entail his going to the far corner as teammates refuse to pass him the ball, essentially putting Artest on an island. Jackson didn't suggest that extreme, but he did note, "He does have to take good shots."

Defensively, Artest's impact could be huge. He's correct in saying that "it's going to come down to the Lakers versus Oklahoma City than any individual matchup," meaning there are other issues such as the Lakers' experience, the Thunder's speedy backcourt and the Lakers' size that could help prove the difference. Still, in the Lakers' 3-1 season series against Oklahoma City, Artest held Durant to an average of 25.8 points per contest, his fourth-lowest total against any opponent. Against a team that boasts the ninth-worst assist rate in the NBA, there remains a strong chance Artest's success against Durant could be the difference. 

--Mark Medina

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Photo: Ron Artest (37) and Clippers guard Steve Blake battle for a rebound during Wednesday's game. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times