LOS ANGELES – The longer Ron Artest(notes) talked, the more the contradictions tumbled out of his mouth. This hadn’t been impressive to him on Sunday. You’re kidding, right? Once, Artest reminded, he had held Latrell Sprewell without a basket. Everyone used to fear Ron-Ron, but there was the NBA suspension, the exile to the Sacramento Kings and it started to feel like the best years of his basketball life had been lost.
No, this was nothing. Nothing at all. Here at Staples Center, Artest sold the climbing inside the body and mind of Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant(notes) as an ordinary course of basketball business for his most extraordinary old self.
"If someone else did that, they'd be happy," Artest insisted. He was talking about Durant's air balls, the flustered forces and misses. "I've been guarding the best player my whole career. … I'm not going to fool myself and think that I did anything special."
Only Artest kept talking, and the question came, "Do you think that this was a dominant defensive performance?" And finally a sheepish smile crept slowly across his lips. The crowd of reporters had mostly come and gone outside his locker, and now Artest no longer resisted the story angles of him shutting down Oklahoma City's young star with coyness.
He liked that word now.
He liked it a lot.
"Actually, it might have been," Artest said.
Oh, Artest loved this performance. Just loved it. He'll never be one of the chosen ones like Durant, one of the NBA's billboard players. Only, he can make life miserable for them. That's why he's a Laker now. That's why GM Mitch Kupchak and coach Phil Jackson believed he could make an NBA champion even better. That's why Artest for Trevor Ariza(notes) was a wise roster exchange, why it was always designed to pay its most prosperous benefits in the playoffs.
All alone, Artest introduced Durant to playoff basketball. He pushed and pulled and grinded him. He tangled his arms and tested his patience and pushed him farther and farther back to the 3-point line. Durant missed 17 of 24 shots – "I was frustrated," he confessed later – and he never had a chance to steal the Lakers' 87-79 victory in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series.
Perhaps Artest always knew there would be no true judgment of him until spring. Artest walked into the defending champions, replaced a burgeoning young talent in Ariza and felt lost for much of the season. He knew he had to sacrifice his offense, but how much? Sometimes, he felt as if he gave back too much of himself. The indoctrination into the triangle is a perplexing process for everyone, and he's still learning his way within it.
Odom introduced him to the Lakers' way of sacrifice. Who has given more of his game than him? They came out of the Queens borough of New York together, out of troubled childhoods, tumultuous twenties and into NBA stardom. They've had issues, baggage, but they made it to become indispensable thirtysomethings, sacrificing scoring to chase championships with L.A. In a lot of ways, Odom is much more constituted as a person and a player to blend into the Lakers. Odom doesn't crave the light, but Artest? He goes toward it like a moth.
"We tried to tell him not to feel the pressure, that we got too many good players for him to feel pressure," Odom said. "There's so much talent around this locker room, it's not like we say, 'OK, you've got to replace Trev, you've got to win the championship, now take the ball and take on all five on the other side.' "
The Lakers could've lived without Artest missing seven of eight 3-pointers. So it goes with him. What Artest wants is what he's always wanted: attention. Sometimes, he has done terrible things to get it. He went into the stands and started that epic brawl in Auburn Hills, Mich. He has lost his cool with coaches and teammates, with referees and opponents.
When people considered the possibility of the postseason's first suspension for an ill-intended elbow, Artest would've ranked high with Boston's Kevin Garnett(notes). Eventually, everyone expected Artest to combust in Los Angeles this season. Hasn't happened yet, and now Artest will have to prove that the pressure of earning his varsity letter with the Lakers won't push him over the edge now.
History has shown Artest's ability to wear down a man over the length of a playoff series, and the story line for Game 2 will be all about Ron-Ron and the youngest scoring champion in NBA history. Nothing fuels Artest's ferocity like knowing all eyes are on him.
He dyed his hair gold for the playoffs, and says there are more colors on the way.
Why, someone asked.
"I like when people talk bad about me."
He thought again for a moment, and corrected himself. Finally, the coyness and contradictions were gone and he spoke to a simpler, singular truth.
"I like when people talk about me," Ron Artest said.