Ron Artest and Phil Jackson offer little explanation for Artest's improved play
Long after everyone had exited the Lakers' practice facility Saturday in El Segundo, Ron Artest remained in the gym popping jumper after jumper.
He had just told reporters that his recent shooting surge -- a 15-for-25 mark (60%) from the field and a seven-of-12 clip (58.3%) from three-point range -- had very little to do with extra shooting. After all, Artest has frequently been the last Laker to leave the floor and opt for more time honing his stroke. But Artest offered very little explanation otherwise, saying, "I don't know," "nothing's changed" and other various forms of uncertainty five times when talking with reporters. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson didn't provide much of a take either, saying, "I can't exactly pinpoint" the reason, before wondering openly whether Matt Barnes' absence from a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee has spurred Artest to fill a bigger role.
"I started off the season really well," Artest said. "I'm in more shape. I had a great training camp and early season and something happened and things weren't going my way. I had to just deal with it. But for me, nothing's changed."
Artest was asked, "So you said something happened. What was that?"
Still no luck.
"I don't know," Artest said. "Nothing really changed for me."
Well if Artest and Jackson don't have an explanation, I certainly have some. Below are four reasons why Artest's game has improved.
1. Championship ring raffle is over
This became a sore subject for Artest when he was asked about it after Christmas Day because he took offense to the presumption that his heart hadn't been in the game. That couldn't be further from the truth considering he's among one of the team's hardest workers and frequently stays after practice to work on his shooting. But he's conceded a few times concern that promoting the championship ring raffle made him feel stretched thin with his Laker responsibilities. Artest perfectly epitomized that stress when he arrived 30 minutes late Dec. 22 to the Target Terrace at L.A. Live because of bad traffic. The fact the Lakers hosted the Milwaukee Bucks two hours later that night across the street didn't make things easier. As well-intentioned as Artest can be, it appears a challenge for him to multitask. As good of a cause as his ring raffle provided for funding mental health charities, the decreased workload since then has helped him remain hone his focus.
2. Increased role during Barnes' absence
The Lakers will surely miss Barnes' presence off the bench, from where he averaged 7.4 points and 4.8 rebounds in 20.8 minutes through aggressive and efficient play. But Artest has proven so far in four games since Barnes' absence that he can fill the void. After Barnes landed awkwardly while fighting for a rebound in the second quarter of the Lakers' 101-97 loss on Jan. 7 to the New Orleans Hornets, Artest has averaged 33.6 minutes a contest, a sharp increase from the 27.7 minutes a game he's logged all season. His minutes-per-game average would be even higher had he played more than 27 minutes in the Lakers' 112-57 victory against Cleveland, though that would've been completely unnecessary.
"I had a responsibility when I was at Indiana, Sacramento," Artest said. "When I got there, they were in last place. I took them from last place to the eighth spot and almost beat the Spurs when they won the championship. Same thing with Houston. They hadn't been in the playoffs in 12 years and I got them out of the first round. I have a responsibility my whole career."
3. Less needling from Jackson.
Rarely had Jackson been shy about criticizing Artest, ranging from his shot selection, poor understanding of the triangle and adjusting to a decreased role. He also liked to poke fun at Artest, ranging from his shoes to his goofy antics. Artest confronted Jackson in a late-December practice, asking that he stop publicly criticizing him and expressing the desire forJackson to coach him behind closed doors instead of through the media.
Since then Jackson's comments have been very tempered. Jackson confirmed the report, but refused to speak much about the incident. He hasn't taken any digs at Artest since that time. And all the comments appear very deferential.
On Artest's increased role during Barnes' absence: "He looks forward to it actually. I think Ron will look forward to it. I don't think it will be pressure at all."
On Artest's improved shooting: "Ron's played real well. I think he's playing really well. He's shooting the ball in rhythm and he's quite comfortable. Maybe Matt's out, he feels more responsibility out there or something. I don't know. It's just that time when he's been working extra long in practice on his shots. He's been very effective."
Jackson clarifying his earlier contention that Artest has spent more time recently in the gym: "He's not working any extra hard. He's always working. I can't exactly pinpoint."
Jackson on whether Artest has improved since the ring raffle: "I couldn't put my finger on it."
4. Better rhythm within the offense
Artest's play has also appeared to improve, as indicated by his late-game shots against Phoenix and Golden State, improved entry passes and some feisty defensive play against New York, which helped set the Lakers' tone defensively as they continue sharpening the new scheme that emphasizes closing out on the perimeter, forcing opponents baseline and the frontcourt remaining close to the basket. It's a role Jackson said he assumes Artest will be able to replicate throughout Barnes' absence.
But Artest's performance should go beyond numbers. His rhythm has improved because he doesn't stand in the corner idly as much as before, opting instead to sharpen entry passes, make cuts through the lane and take shots when they're open.
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