LOS ANGELES – Got to look at the tape, Ron Artest(notes) said. He sat in front of his locker trying to make sense of how the Los Angeles Lakers had come apart, and, yes, this would seem to be a subject on which he could speak with some conviction. If there's a universal authority on the subject of coming unhinged, it's Ron Artest.
No matter. The questions kept coming, and Artest kept giving some variation of the same answer.
Got to look at the tape.
Maybe it's that simple. Maybe the Lakers cued up the video on their flight to Boston Monday and saw how they unraveled in the fourth quarter of Game 2 of the NBA Finals, how Rajon Rondo(notes) seized control of the series for the Celtics, how the officials saddled Kobe Bryant(notes) and Lamar Odom(notes) with five fouls. Maybe they learned a few things and come back with a better plan for Game 3.
But somewhere in the film, Artest inevitably made his own appearance. Late in the game, clock ticking down, Lakers trying to make one final, desperate push, he dribbled, hesitated, dribbled some more … dribbled some more … dribbled some more … and finally hoisted a long jump shot that missed. He appeared to wander aimlessly during the possession as if he were dribbling crop circles into the court. And for this, there is no answer, no solution, no 48-hour fix.
[Photos: See Ron Artest in action]
This was Ron being Ron, and that’s why the Lakers will forever worry.
Said Lakers coach Phil Jackson: "It's one of the more unusual sequences I've ever witnessed."
The Houston Rockets will likely laugh at that, as will the Sacramento Kings, Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls. They each lived with Artest's eccentricities until they couldn't anymore. But none of them had to dance with him on this stage. None dared to bring Artest to the NBA Finals.
This is what the Lakers got when they essentially swapped Trevor Ariza(notes) for Artest in the summer. The lows can be tortuously low and the highs can be tremendously high, as when Artest grabbed Kobe Bryant's miss and banked in a shot at the buzzer to beat the Phoenix Suns in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, saving, perhaps, the Lakers' season. Two nights later, Artest scored 25 points to help Bryant push L.A. into the NBA Finals, and Jackson had just one explanation for the remarkable performance.
[Photos: See classic images of the Celtics-Lakers ]
"The Lord," he said, "was with him."
The basketball gods were smiling on Artest and, deep down, Jackson knew it wouldn't last. It never does with Artest. He played well in the Finals opener, harassing Paul Pierce(notes) and contributing 15 points on 10 shots, and afterward everyone wanted to talk about how he'd spent $18,000 to give a pair of random fans courtside seats and motivated himself by listening to swing music. But then came Sunday. Artest again locked up Pierce, but he also wreaked havoc on the other end of the floor, taking 10 shots and missing nine of them. Too many times, he rushed the Lakers' offense – or dribbled it into the ground – when Pau Gasol(notes) and Andrew Bynum(notes) were having their way inside.
Artest wasn't the only culprit. The offense also stagnated with Bryant, and a quick whistle by the refs seemingly put half the Lakers' rotation into foul trouble. Odom played just 15 minutes and now has only eight points and nine rebounds in the series, raising questions whether he's again haunted by the Celtics ghosts of two years ago. Had Odom been more productive or been able to stay on the floor, perhaps Jackson wouldn't have felt the need to play Artest 41 minutes.
The Lakers' fortunes can change for the better just as easily with a change in the officiating crew. Bryant will likely see his mistakes and Ray Allen(notes) isn't likely to throw in another eight 3-pointers. But what the Lakers can't predict – what no one can predict – is Artest. He's forever the Great Unknown, a dynamic defensive talent who can just as easily disrupt his own team’s offense. The Lakers have long been used to Odom drifting in and out games, but they can't survive with both of their forwards going AWOL.
Jackson attributed Artest's bizarre antics at the end of the game to Artest trying to "redeem himself," perhaps for a forced pass he had thrown away earlier. This speaks to Artest's hero complex and why he's prone to follow one mistake with two or three more. He always wants to impress. His success from the preceding three games only stirred his urges. This is also why the Lakers will try to convince Artest his defense on Pierce can be contribution enough.
"I'll have a conversation with him," Jackson said.
Artest was already looking ahead to Game 3. He didn't know what he had done wrong, if anything, but he was sure he'd find the answers somewhere in the film.
"I think I need to look at the tape to see if I can improve," he said.
"Trying too hard? I don't know that I was trying too hard. Maybe just play better. Basically, play better – team-wise first and individually second. … I've been through this already, where I had a bad game and then I bounced back the next time."
The Lakers have this much going for them: Nothing ever stays too bad or too good with Artest for too long. Cue the tape and the string music. Two nights and 2,600 miles later, maybe the basketball gods start smiling again.
- Ron Artest