LOS ANGELES – Ron Artest(notes) punched his fist into the air again and again as the crowd's roar fell upon him. He had bumped and pushed and clawed Carmelo Anthony(notes) all afternoon, and Anthony pushed back one time too many, drawing a whistle and an early exit. Artest threw one last celebratory uppercut. This was his knockout blow.
This also was why the Los Angeles Lakers brought Artest here, why they chose him over Trevor Ariza(notes), why they gambled their championship hopes on a player who, even in his better moments, can come off as a loon.
The Lakers needed Artest's toughness, if not also his zaniness, and they needed it for these Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets had shoved them around in the teams' first two meetings and imposed their physicality for another half on Sunday. As the Lakers retreated to the locker room at halftime, they were trailed by the same tired questions they've heard for so long. Weren't they too soft? Wasn't their championship foundation built on talent and too little grit?
A year ago, Derek Fisher(notes) had to launch his skull into Luis Scola's(notes) chest to stir the Lakers in their playoff series against the Houston Rockets. The Lakers went on to beat Denver in the West finals and overwhelm the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals, but they also knew this: They needed to get tougher. The Nuggets would return only hungrier.
Ariza's agent gave the Lakers the only opening they needed, overplaying his hand when he complained his client deserved more than a midlevel offer. The Lakers took the same money and gave it to Artest, and their logic showed Sunday. As Pau Gasol(notes) and Andrew Bynum(notes) wilted in the first two quarters, Artest stood as firm as ever, bullying Anthony as few defenders have this season.
The rest of the Lakers picked up their aggressiveness in the second half, and Artest continued to frustrate Anthony, fronting him, denying him the ball. Artest leaned in one last time, and Anthony flailed Artest's arm from him. The officials saw enough to give Anthony his sixth foul. With about two minutes remaining, 'Melo's exit was a death knell. The Nuggets didn't score again.
Denver took exception with the call and another offensive foul on Anthony – "There was a lot of wrestling going on out there," George Karl said – but that didn't mute the impact of Artest's performance. Anthony missed 12 of his 19 shots and committed eight turnovers.
More than a few people have wondered about that this season, questioning whether the Lakers would have been better off keeping Ariza. And that includes the Nuggets. "I really, really thought Trevor Ariza was good for that team," Chauncey Billups(notes) told Yahoo! Sports' Marc Spears before the teams' previous meeting. "I think they miss him."
The Rockets might beg to differ. They gave Ariza the green light only to wish he'd see red. Artest's contributions have been subtler than Ariza's inflated scoring average: He's a better passer than given credit for and a fairly dependable 3-point shooter, and he's more equipped than Ariza to shoulder the offensive load on those rare nights when asked.
The Lakers, however, didn't sign Artest for his subtlety. They wanted a lockdown defender, and he hasn't always performed to that level this season while playing on sore feet. Phil Jackson blamed the problem on Artest's boat-sized shoes. More recently, Artest admitted to something else weighing him down.
Artest has worked to improve his diet and conditioning the past few weeks. He says he has lost 13 pounds and wants to drop another five to get to an even 250. He has felt the difference the past few games.
"Some people get in shooting rhythms," he said. "I can get in a defensive rhythm."
The Lakers signed Artest because they needed someone to help them match up better with physical forwards like Anthony and LeBron James(notes). Anthony took note: "It's impossible to have a 'Melo stopper," he declared after dropping 25 points on Artest in their first meeting.
There's truth to that. In the hour before Sunday's game, Jackson called Anthony "a brutalizing force." But the goal of any great defender isn't to stop his man. It's to make him work. Artest told Jackson he didn't want help with Anthony. He didn't need it. "Remarkable," was how Jackson chose to describe Artest's defense.
"It's fun to play a game where they're letting it go," Artest said. "You're getting frustrated a little bit, but you know you're in the grind. You want to be in that situation. … It's old-school basketball. I miss that."
The Lakers have missed it, too, these past few seasons. The Celtics embarrassed them in the '08 Finals, and the Nuggets have continued to swell with confidence, even after losing in last season's conference finals.
The Lakers could have brought back their championship roster intact, but that also would have invited complacency. Change can be good, even for a champion. Artest, unlike his teammates, doesn't have a ring. He has something to prove.
Kobe always plays with that edge, but his talent and will to win are so immense they can smother his teammates. Artest has his own otherworldly traits, albeit from Planet Zoltron, but his fearlessness can become infectious for these Lakers. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Lamar Odom(notes), who is prone to floating through games, if not weeks, delivered 20 points and 12 rebounds against the rugged Nuggets. Artest threw in a timely 3-pointer of his own. Kobe suffered through the second-worst shooting performance of his career and it didn't matter.
"We need to be the aggressor," Gasol said afterward. "We need to challenge people instead of always being challenged."
No, that won't scare the Nuggets. They've beaten the Lakers twice, and they walked out of the Staples Center thinking they could have beaten them again.
But this wasn't about them. This was about the Lakers needing to make a stand.
This was about someone showing them how.