The moment Ron Artest's put-back went through the basket in the Lakers' 103-101 Game 5 Western Conference finals victory Thursday over the Phoenix Suns, he claimed for a split second he felt no emotion other than the fact the Lakers need to win Game 6 to clinch the series.
Soon after, however, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant embraced him, Lakers forward Lamar Odom wrapped his arms around him and the rest of the team quickly followed suit. I noted before that Artest, a player who prides himself on not dwelling on past performances, seemed to soak up the scene, slapping high-fives with teammates, enthusiastically recapping the theatrics to reporters and signing autographs to plenty of fans. Yet, he shared after Friday's practice that the brief jubilation pointed more to the fact that he viewed his game-winner as "more of a team thing" than any individual accomplishment.
Artest's happiness became as fleeting as his rise from goat to hero in Game 5. That's when he launched an ill-advised three-pointer in the final minute as the Lakers nursed a three-point lead with 22 seconds on the shot clock. He then responded with a put-back off Bryant's missed three-pointer with 0.8 seconds remaining. Artest's post-game elation appeared so fleeting that he wondered why former Sacramento teammate Mike Bibby sent him a text message congratulating him for the shot. It appeared so fleeting that he went to a local gym to work out for an hour, believing that immediate postgame exercise would ensure longer recovery time before the next game. It appeared so fleeting that he used the phrase "move on" eight different times the next day when discussing his Game 5 heroics."I wasn't always that way," said Artest, whose career has mostly been defined by his aloof and angry on-court persona, most notably in the Brawl at the Palace. "When I was younger, I'd stay in the moment or stay in the past. But I wish I could've enjoyed it more. But there's nothing to enjoy."
As far as why that mindset has changed, Artest said, "I don't know." But he acknowledged he'll revel in the moment if Lakers win a championship, which explains why Artest signed a five-year deal worth $33 million with the organization and why fans and media members forever debate whether the Lakers are better off with Artest than Trevor Ariza. That's because Artest embodies a living contradiction that both frustrates and inspires, with his up-and-down performance in Game 5 serving as the most recent example. The Lakers have enjoyed his lockdown defensive presence but experience frustration with Artest's learning curve in the triangle offense. They lament his stubborn approach in shooting open shots, despite his 32.9 shooting percentage this postseason, but love that Artest maintains the confidence to immediately bounce back. Artest carries a serious approach in going to the gym immediately following Game 5, but arrives to practice the following day a half-hour late because he didn't read the correct time on the whiteboard.
That's why when a reporter asked Lakers Coach Phil Jackson if he can properly explain Artest, he immediately relents. "No, I certainly can't," said Jackson, who added he fined Artest an undisclosed amount for arriving late to practice. "I tell Lamar [Odom] he's his guardian. We have not the blind leading the blind, but probably the deaf leading the blind." Through the good and the bad, however, reveals one clear thing. Artest's teammates have fully embraced him. The team's support following Artest's game-winner appeared genuine, with Jackson describing the reaction this way: "They all knew he messed up and were rooting for him to have a comeback." Bryant admires Artest's willingness to play through adversity: "He just puts his head down and goes. And Lakers forward Pau Gasol, who describes Artest as a "good teammate" and "good guy," points to his want to help: "He's worked to try to adjust and fit in as much as he could."
"I don't know if that's the right thing or the wrong thing," Artest said. "I don't know if I'm going about things the right way or the wrong way but I worry about the next possession."
Nonetheless, you can't fault Artest for his earnestness in wanting to help the team. After suffering through plantar fasciitis (sore feet) in December, he went through pains to lose weight so he could compensate for his decreased quickness. He has routinely delegated to teammates, most notably Bryant, and makes it clear he's part of the supporting cast. And he's played through assorted injuries, including a sprained left thumb.
You can understand Artest's intentions, even if they didn't produce the desired result. He dyed his hair numerous times in hope to lighten the mood, only to be met with teasing and rolled eyes among teammates and the coaching staff. He's attempted to learn the offense and play through it, even if he often causes disruption. And he's tried to revamp his persona with numerous public appearances, though it's often diverted his attention from fully concentrating on basketball.
And then there are things you simply have to tolerate as Artest still shows small glimpses of immaturity. There was head-scratching over his Christmas night concussion. Artest's frustrations with Jackson's public criticism of his shooting prompted him to air his grievances via Twitter. And he views opponents' scouting reports in giving him open shots as a sign of disrespect when it really just speaks to teams playing the percentages.
But there's no amount of statistics to quantify the effort Artest will bring. There may be maddening performances to come. The rest of the postseason might also feature some strong defensive matchups and hot shooting nights. Whatever version of Artest the Lakers will experience, they know he's leaving everything on the court in an effort to help ensure the Lakers repeat.
"My main thing is making sure I stay in the game, staying focused and giving 100%," Artest said. "Sometimes 100% is not good enough for people watching or it's just not good enough. If I give 100%, I'm totally happy. That's why I'm totally happy with being a villain sometimes or being hated. As long as I give 100%, I'm like, 'Cool, I gave 100%,' I went down like a soldier. That's the only thing I know."
But don't expect Artest to savor the moment anytime soon, unless, of course, the Lakers win the title.
Said Artest: "If God blesses me, if he allows me to have that, I will."