SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP)—After the drama and disappointment that consumed Ron Artest’s life over the past two seasons, he was thrilled just to have the chance to jump into the stands again.
The Sacramento Kings’ ever-loving fans were equally excited—and they responded to one of their new forward’s many hustle plays with one of many ovations.
The Kings acquired Artest from Indiana last week for beloved sharpshooter Peja Stojakovic, the club’s longest-tenured player. The mercurial forward’s hustle and defense made him irresistible to Sacramento, even with his lengthy history of baffling behavior and suspensions.
Instead of easing the newcomer into the lineup, coach Rick Adelman immediately installed Artest as an integral part of the last-place team in consecutive road losses last week. Against Denver, Artest played 40 minutes and handled the ball on nearly every fourth-quarter possession.
And Artest loved it.
“I’m blessed to be playing with a team like this,” Artest said as he changed into the only suit he remembered to bring with him from Indianapolis. “We played horrible tonight, and we still won. It’s just talent. … We could have played much better, and we still won. We’re trying, given the circumstances we’re under.”
Artest even ended up in the stands again, but got a standing ovation for this trip. Artest, who precipitated the infamous Detroit brawl in November 2004, went flying over the front row of seats in pursuit of a loose ball in the opening minute of the fourth quarter.
“That right there tells you all you need to know about who he is,” said Bonzi Wells, who had seven points and 14 rebounds in his first game since Dec. 19. “Any team with Ron is getting a lot of positive things. People only talk about the negative. A lot of guys on our team can relate to that.”
But for at least one night in his latest fresh start, Artest felt nothing but love.
Carmelo Anthony scored 24 points and Kenyon Martin added 21 for the first-place Nuggets, who lost their third straight following a seven-game winning streak. Denver’s losing skid at Arco Arena has reached an improbable length since its last victory on Jan. 7, 1997.
“We played great in the second half,” Denver coach George Karl said. “We had many opportunities to come back, but they always made a shot and made a play.”
Anthony got in early foul trouble, curtailing his matchup with Artest. Though Kenyon Martin scored 15 points in the first half, the Kings jumped to a 52-43 halftime lead with 16 points in the second quarter from Kevin Martin, who hit two 3-pointers and was perfect on eight free throws.
“He was unbelievable tonight,” Earl Boykins said of Kevin Martin. “He hit big shots for them, and he was the key reason they won the game. He was absolutely amazing.”
Anthony scored 14 points in the third quarter to keep it close for the Nuggets, who held their deficit to single digits throughout the fourth. Denver scored five straight points and got within 89-85 when Bibby got a technical foul for arguing, but the Nuggets managed just one field goal in the final 3:50.
Mike Bibby scored 15 points, and the Kings also got a boost from Wells, who returned to their starting lineup after missing 19 games with a torn muscle in his groin. But the injury-plagued club got yet another concern before the game, when it learned center Brad Miller was sidelined with a broken right thumb.
Kenny Thomas had 15 points and 12 rebounds for the Kings, who returned from a 1-5 East Coast road disaster with their fourth straight impressive home victory, following wins over Orlando, Phoenix and the Lakers before the trip.
Sacramento looked tired in the fourth quarter, and with good reason: Artest and Wells haven’t played in several weeks, and forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim still has trouble breathing with his broken jaw wired shut. But the Kings barely had enough energy to hold off Denver.
Adelman put the game largely in Artest’s hands in the fourth quarter, running the offense through the post-up forward on the low block. It’s a revolutionary look for the Kings, who were the epitome of a perimeter passing team just two seasons ago—but it worked against Denver.
“He’s very willing to do that,” Adelman said. “He gives us something we really haven’t had: A guy that can put it on the floor and break people down. I think we should give it some time and see how this team grows together.”
Kings owner Gavin Maloof wore a purple replica of Artest’s No. 93 jersey in his courtside seat. … Sacramento didn’t project a return date for Miller, but assistant coach Pete Carril expects him to miss at least three games. … Kevin Martin has reached his previous career high at least five times this season. After starting 19 straight games, he was back in a reserve role behind Wells.