HOUSTON – He had chased a wayward pass beyond the baseline, beyond reason, and the momentum of a ball, a season – a legacy – that had been spared thrust Ron Artest up the stairs between sections 101 and 126 and into the flailing arms of faithful Houstonians. The Rockets had the ball back on offense and were playing four on five because Artest had repackaged a journey into the heart of darkness and transformed it into something warm and wonderful.
“I’ve been in the stands before,” Artest said later with a sheepish smile. “A guy offered me a beer.
“He didn’t throw it at me.”
A long way from the Palace at Auburn Hills four seasons ago, a long way from NBA pariah, Artest sat down 10 rows back in the Toyota Center and let the love wash over him. He wanted to linger, commune, so Ron Artest just sat there. From the left and right, they quickly closed on him and he disappeared into wave upon wave of fans touching and hugging and thanking him. As security rushed to release Artest, the truth had never been so clear with him: Victory has long been confused with virtue in sports, but as a basketball star, Ron Artest was free again.
Artest was most responsible for the Rockets’ 92-76 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, his 27 points in Game 6 going a long way to lift the pall over Houston. Finally, the Rockets had won a playoff series. It had been 12 arduous years, and it was lost on no one that the false franchise god of Tracy McGrady wore a suit on the sideline Thursday night.
The advancing of these Rockets belonged to Yao Ming, Artest and the sturdy complementary parts that fabulous general manager Daryl Morey had assembled, and underappreciated coach Rick Adelman had meshed. For the Rockets, Artest was never a gamble; the risk was letting him leave Sacramento for another team in the Western Conference.
“This was the right time of his career, the right coach,” Morey said in a quiet corner of a joyous winning locker room. “Ron’s just got a maturity about him now.”
As Artest was desperate for salvation, so were these Rockets. There is nothing subtle about Artest’s ferocious persona, but there’s remarkable nuance to his game. He has such a feel for what a game, a locker room, a team needs. After the Rockets lost Game 5 in Portland, there was so much talk of impending doom again.
Around the city, there was that sinking feeling the Rockets were threatening to choke away another series, another season. Players are human, and they sense that vibe surrounding them. Artest knew it and began Game 6 with an uncommon determination to score. He didn’t give Yao and Shane Battier and Luis Scola a chance to get tight, get behind and get in trouble. Before the half, Artest had 19 points and Brandon Roy was struggling for everything.
“I think he wore Roy out,” Morey said. “The whole burden was on him, and it was just too much.”
When everyone else was obsessed with winning one series, Artest kept insisting they were thinking too narrowly. He flooded Roy with praise, proclaiming him the greatest shooting guard he had played in the NBA.
“Brandon is the first player to give me 40,” Artest gushed. “I’ve held guys to zero, six points in this league, but 40 points. … This guy doesn’t respect me.”
He went out of his way to overly praise Roy, at the expense of dismissing Kobe Bryant. No one talks to Kobe the way Artest does. No one dares. He was going on and on about how Roy just needs to learn to play defense, suggesting that “Kobe didn’t do that until two or three years ago.” Everyone understands the Roy comparisons with Kobe are foolish, but this was a way for Artest to start harassing Bryant before he greets him next week at Staples Center. Hey, no one goes for 40 on me, Artest is saying. Not even you, Kobe.
Between Artest and Shane Battier, the Rockets have two defenders with a history of presenting problems for Bryant. As much as anything, Artest is trying to appeal to Kobe’s obsessive competitive gene, that part of him which wants to answer every slight with another shot. He wants Bryant to be selfish. He wants to get Bryant out of the team game and into a street fight with him. It probably won’t happen, but God bless Ron Artest for the fearlessness to try anyway.
There was no talk out of Artest about winning a round of the playoffs – just the Lakers now, just Kobe.
“It is not our goal to just get out of the first round,” Artest said. “That’s not L.A.’s goal. That’s not Boston’s goal. That’s not Cleveland’s goal.”
He wants them to think big here, and Yao seems to love it. For so long, he had been paired with that fragile soul of T-Mac, whose own insecurities seemed to become the franchise’s, too.
That’ll never happen with Artest. The Rockets probably won’t beat the Lakers, but Artest emboldens them. Yao, Battier and Scola are straight-laced and dutiful pros, and Artest is the bad-ass whom they can live through vicariously. The Rockets hadn’t left the Toyota Center celebration, and Artest was talking trash to Kobe Bryant across the country.
“Kobe just started to play defense the last couple years,” he said, and Ron Artest had pushed past Portland, past those opening-round ghosts that belonged to someone else’s history in Houston. He had pushed past it all on Thursday night and delivered himself into the warm, waiting embrace of a starving basketball city.
Yes, Ron Artest had been in the stands before, but this time the fans wanted to hug him. They wanted to hold on to him. They needed him, and he needed them.