Artest proves he’s worth another shot

LOS ANGELES – Ron Artest(notes) had just bricked up an ill-advised, final-minute 3-pointer when everyone in the Staples Center had screamed for him to chill out and kill the clock.

Oh boy, here was Ron-Ron. The shot was total hubris, an unnecessary, unforced, not-thinking decision in a career defined by them. Artest had just missed an open jumper, grabbed his rebound and, pride wounded, was trying to prove something to someone. This was Ron the Unreliable. This was Artest the Headcase.

Ron Artest scored just four points, but his last two were cause for the Lakers to celebrate.
(Getty Images)

The smart play was to let the Los Angeles Lakers milk some seconds off the game and then get the ball to Kobe where it belongs. Instead, Artest couldn’t resist the vision of putting a dagger into the Phoenix Suns, of turning a three-point lead into a six-point, insurmountable, star-making advantage.

Yes, Ron Artest wanted to hit the big shot on the big night here in the big city. Hit that three and he’s the man, part of the reason the Lakers moved to a 3-2 Western Conference Finals lead.

”Not a good play,” coach Phil Jackson said.

All season Artest has struggled to find a role, struggled to find his place here in L.A. The Lakers won the NBA title a year ago and then effectively swapped Trevor Ariza(notes) for Artest. The volatile New Yorker and the relaxed Lakers have never quite meshed.

Now here was his chance and it overwhelmed him.

Yes, this was the Ron Artest everyone feared, the one who in his quest to be a hero, was about to be the goat. The guy, who, in his desire to receive praise from Jackson, wound up on the bench getting an earful of anger. ”He was trying not to listen to me,” Jackson said.

Yet Jackson didn’t pull Artest. He left him in with 3.5 seconds left. The score was tied. A play called ”Starburst” was set up for Kobe Bryant(notes) to take the winning shot.

”I don’t know why I left him in the game,” Jackson said. ”I actually questioned it myself.”

But when Bryant’s shot fell well short, an air ball that seem to indicate overtime, there was Artest. He’d come out of nowhere. He’d slipped free under the basket, caught the shot in midair and immediately turned and banked it in just before the final buzzer. It was the dramatic finish he coveted. The Lakers won 103-101 to give them the chance to advance to the NBA Finals with a victory Saturday in Phoenix.

It isn’t easy to turn Staples Center into Cameron Indoor but Ron Artest did it. They love good stories out here and this was an obvious one. Kobe ran to embrace him. The rest of the Lakers converged into a huddle of hugs by the sideline. All around him the A-listers and the agents and the plastic-surgery addicts went crazy.

In the middle was hero Ron Artest, right where he’s been trying to get all along.

”I think he now feels a part of the team,” said Polow da Don, the famed music producer and front-row Staples Center denizen who has befriended Artest this season. ”He never had a moment like this.”

A moment like this; that’s what Artest had been seeking. A Hollywood moment. Yes, it’s selfish to chase such a feeling, but with Artest it comes from a humble place. It’s about the need for acceptance.

Coming to Los Angeles, coming to the Lakers has been a clash of cultures, of personalities, of styles of play. Artest has never found his rhythm in the triangle offense. He’s never found his comfort level in the Lakers’ locker room. He’s been dying for a chance to make his teammates believe in him.

This is a cool, relaxed, happy team. Artest is a guy who was once suspended for 73 games for charging into the stands and trying to beat up a fan or four.

This is a franchise where Lamar Odom(notes) has a personal publicist passing out business cards at halftime and a Kardashian sister waiting for him postgame. Artest is a guy, who, as a teen, played in a game that ended when someone got stabbed through the heart with the leg of the scorer’s table.

When some Staples Center machinery rumbled loudly (and harmlessly) after the game, Artest nervously looked around. ”Was that an earthquake or something?”

California might as well be Mars.

”He’s more of an aggressive player; they’re laid back,” Polow da Don said. All year the producer has been trying to get the player to relax and let the game come to him. Polow da Don knows how to put disparate beats together. He knows how to lay music down. He believes Artest can make the Lakers even better, but not if Artest keeps pressing too hard. He has to relax and get into the groove. He has to do his thing.

So when Ron was done hugging his teammates, he ran over and celebrated with da Don.

”I did it,” Artest said.

The truth is Artest has been trying too hard. Thursday. This season. His entire career. He puts immense pressure on himself and always has. He then rebels against it in the most bizarre, unprofessional of ways.

Artest admitted that when he was with the Chicago Bulls he drank Hennessy in the locker room at halftime. He once asked for a month off from the Indiana Pacers to promote a rap album. He’s been suspended seemingly a million times.

He’s also the kind of guy that can be so endearing on an individual level. He has this boyish, sheepish personality that makes people fall into a trap where some season- or franchise-crippling move somehow comes as a surprise.

Jackson said he tries to talk to him ”about decisions. We [ask] him to make good decisions.”

Good decisions from Ron Artest?

Of course, Artest was going to take the dumbest shot at the most important moment of the season. And, of course he was going to shrug it off postgame and say, ”nobody’s perfect.”

He’s maddening.

”No, I have not [forgiven him],” Jackson said postgame. ”I’m still recovering.”

Then again, Artest is the guy, who, on the final play, set up on the other side of the rim, figuring if Bryant would miss, he’d miss long. If so, perhaps he could swoop in for a tip. Only when Bryant released his shot, Artest thought he’d gotten hacked. So he accurately assumed the ball wouldn’t reach the rim and reacted instinctively by racing to where it might go.

”I figured it was going to be short,” Artest said.

He figured right. He was the only one on the court who saw the play happening before it happened.

”He just has a knack of being around crucial plays,” Jackson said.

Afterward, Artest tried to explain himself, which is what he’s always doing. Yes, he had screwed up earlier. Yes, he was a miserable 1 for 8 from the floor until the game-winner. Yes he’s had terrible games throughout the season; ”he’s kind of been going up and down,” Bryant said.

Artest has never stopped trying, though, he tried to remind everyone. Nobody’s perfect, remember. ”When I’ve been inconsistent finding my way to play consistent, I want to make sure my effort [is there],” he said in Artestian fashion.

Effort is what took him to Bryant’s errant shot. Effort is what put him in the middle of that celebration. Effort is what pushed the Lakers to the verge of the Finals.

And effort is what Ron Artest believes finally made him a Laker, finally made him belong and finally justified this long, strange experiment in L.A. could work.

At least for now.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, May 28, 2010