Ron Artest's performance in Lakers' 99-95 victory over Phoenix Suns provides blueprint
For what felt like an infinitely long three seconds, Lakers forward Ron Artest stood still at the nearside perimeter standing, holding the basketball. For what felt like an infinitely long three seconds, Phoenix's defense stood still and refused to close out. For what felt like an infinitely long three seconds, it appeared uncertain which party would budge first.
With Artest taking his time before taking a corner three-pointer, he ensured the proper balance, showed he wasn't being trigger-happy and gave Phoenix a reminder that it should respect his shot at least a little bit. His trey gave the Lakers a six-point lead with 1:32 remaining in the game. Sure, the Lakers required Pau Gasol to block Vince Carter's 26-foot three-pointer and Kobe Bryant to secure the rebound with eight seconds remaining before the Lakers' 99-95 victory Wednesday over the Phoenix Suns became official.
Artest's corner three-pointer, however, proved to be the turning point in a game that featured five ties and five lead changes. It furthered Artest's progression amid an eventful 48 hours that included a report exposing a conversation he had with Coach Phil Jackson in which he expressed his frustration regarding Jackson's public criticisms. And it offered a model for Artest to follow as he continues to seek his role amid a poor shooting percentage and chronic discomfort within the triangle offense.
"At that point in time, I'm just going to play the possessions as they come," Artest told KCAL-TV Channel 9's John Ireland. "Not much to think about. Kobe made a good pass, just like practice. Dribble, pass, open man and shoot it."
Surely, the Lakers (25-11) showed plenty of other positive aspects in this game. Their second consecutive victory puts them 2 1/2 games behind Dallas (26-8) and 4 1/2 games behind San Antonio (29-6) in the Western Conference standings. The mostly consistent ball movement led to Bryant scoring 24 points on nine-of-17 shooting based off mid-range jumpers and aggressive drives to the rack, Andrew Bynum producing both a strong offensive showing (14 points on six-of-10 shooting with seven rebounds) and strong defense (five blocks and constantly disrupting the lanes), and Lamar Odom (12 points) and Shannon Brown (13 points) offering solid bench support to counter that of the Suns.
Sure, there were also some aggravating moments: The Lakers' stagnant offense led to Phoenix dominating the second quarter (28-16). Bryant's three consecutive missed jumpers and poor transition defense enabled Phoenix to go on an 8-0 run and close the gap to a 92-88 deficit with 3:10 remaining. Gasol had an ineffective night (six points on three-of-10 shooting). The Lakers had no answer for Suns reserve forward Jared Dudley (21 points on eight-of-11 shooting) And Odom suffering an ulnar nerve (medical term for funny bone) contusion left Laker fans nervous, but he appeared in good condition.
However, nothing out of the Lakers' second road victory at Phoenix this season brought more big-picture implications than Artest's performance, which included 11 points on four-of-10 shooting, four rebounds and four assists. For most of the season, Artest has allowed his 39.6% mark from the field to derail his confidence, and teammates thought twice before passing him the ball. For most of the season, Artest's discomfort with the triangle had him and the team contributing to his isolation in the corner of the perimeter. And for most of the season, Artest's general inconsistency prompted Jackson to keep him on the bench during crucial moments of the fourth quarter.
But there Artest was on the floor Wednesday night delivering at the most opportune time after entering the game with 2:04 remaining. Bryant drove into the lane, met a double team and kicked the ball out to Artest from the baseline. After Artest nailed the shot and gave the Lakers a 97-91 lead with 1:30 remaining, Bryant embraced him at center court.
Artest wasn't finished.
Coming off the Suns' timeout, Phoenix forward Grant Hill passed to Vince Carter at the top of the key. But Artest rolled around Marcin Gortat's down screen and immediately marked Carter when he drove toward the free-throw line. With Derek Fisher helping out on a double team, Carter kicked the ball out to Phoenix guard Steve Nash. No worries. Artest switched on him and stuck with him as he drove toward the rack. With Gasol and Brown closing the lane, Nash threw a pass behind Gasol to Gortat in the paint. There was Artest switching, again, however, turning what would've been an easy layup into a hard foul for two free throws. It proved to be a smart strategy, considering that Gortat made only one of them to close the Lakers' lead to 97-92 with 1:23 left in the game.
On the next possession, Artest drove past Dudley, forced Gortat to rotate to the strongside and fed a dump pass to Gasol. His shot was blocked by Hill, but Artest grabbed the loose ball out of Carter's hands. That eventually led to Bryant setting up Fisher for an 18-foot jumper that gave the Lakers a 99-92 cushion with 45 seconds remaining, prompting Phoenix to call another timeout and Bryant and Fisher to exchange a low high-five.
"I'm not athletic as a lot of guys, but that strength is pretty strong," Artest told Ireland. "I can just move guys out the way."
Artest didn't just lift the Lakers' spirits during the final two minutes of play. He brought it the entire game, showing that future performances should be less defined by late-game heroics and more by consistently healthy habits. That doesn't mean he's suddenly an offensive wizard, as he demonstrated in the first play, in which he lined up on the wrong side of the court. But that's exactly the point. Artest remained effective through those shortcomings by looking for open teammates, aggressively driving to the basket when warranted and making hustle plays.
Even if Phoenix's strategy backfired in granting Artest open space in what proved to be the play of game, opposing teams' may still feel unconvinced that they need to throw double teams at him. But Artest doesn't need their respect. He just needs it from his teammates and coaches.
And with Artest's on-court actions showing why it is deserved, the rest of the Lakers provided that respect, a critical step in restoring the trust. But there's still a ways to go.
"It feels better to be able to play more games and move forward," Artest told Ireland. "Win or lose, we move forward and see what happens. ... We're still focused. We lost a lot of games, so there's nothing to feel good about."
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Lakers forward Ron Artest made some crucial plays in the Lakers' 99-95 victory Wednesday over the Phoenix Suns. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times