LOS ANGELES – Metta World Peace returned from his exile to save the Los Angeles Lakers' season. He helped fight off the Denver Nuggets in a thrilling Game 7 victory, and as he walked off the Staples Center court late Saturday, the crowd roared its approval, granting its conquering hero a standing ovation.
For better or worse, these are the moments World Peace – and before him, Ron Artest – loves to embrace. The greater the drama, the greater his hunger. The Lakers needed World Peace to rescue them from their own indifference, and he did, delivering the type of spirited, baseline-to-baseline performance that was missing in L.A.'s losses in Games 5 and 6.
And for those expecting World Peace to show some remorse for either the elbow he jammed into the side of James Harden's head or the costly seven-game suspension resulting from it … well, you'll have to keep waiting. After finally dismissing the Nuggets with a series-clinching 96-87 victory, the Lakers are headed to Oklahoma City to take on Harden's Thunder, and they're bringing World Peace with them. Game 1 of the second-round series is Monday. World Peace knows what awaits him.
Bring it on, he said.
"It’s not my concern. It's their concern," World Peace said of the Thunder fans. "We live in America – freedom of speech. You have freedom to do anything that you want to do."
World Peace can be both wonderfully and dangerously oblivious, and on this night he was dressed only in a button-down shirt, his underwear and a pair of flip-flops as he spoke. No, he hasn't personally apologized to Harden for flooring him with that vicious elbow on April 22. Nor does he plan to do so. Even a simple handshake seems out of the question.
"I don’t shake substitutions' hands,” World Peace said in a reference to Harden's Sixth Man of the Year status. “He doesn’t start."
[Slideshow: Best shots from Saturday's NBA games]
The Lakers-Thunder series won't lack for storylines. Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant, the season's top two scorers, will square off. Thunder guard Derek Fisher, who won five championships with the Lakers, will face his old team. And yet World Peace will command top billing, at least for Game 1, from the moment he walks into OKC's Chesapeake Energy Arena.
"It’s going to be intense," Bryant said. "The crowd is obviously going to have a field day with that, and I’m sure the players will generate some type of energy from it."
Only the NBA Finals, Harden said, will draw more attention in this season's playoffs.
“Because of what happened, people are going to want to see the Lakers versus the Thunder,” Harden said.
Harden sustained a concussion from the hit, but said he won't dwell on the incident.
“I’ve let it go a while ago,” Harden said. “… My focus is definitely on something else."
Prior to his suspension, World Peace had been playing his best basketball of the season. The layoff didn't seem to hurt him much. He stayed sharp by working out with Lakers assistant coaches Phil Handy and Darvin Ham.
“I was ready to play basketball,” World Peace said.
The Lakers needed him, especially after consecutive losses to the Nuggets had thrown their season in doubt. Bryant was still overcoming a stomach ailment. Andrew Bynum's listless play in Game 6 arned him plenty of ridicule. Pau Gasol made just one shot in Game 6, and ESPN analyst and Lakers vice president Magic Johnson even declared a Game 7 loss would result in the firing of coach Mike Brown.
The Lakers quickly distanced themselves from Johnson's comments. Brown also brushed them aside. He wanted only to ensure his team find more energy for Game 7, so he started World Peace.
"That was a no-brainer to throw him into the lineup because he does so many little things," Brown said. "He can guard so many different types of people. He can knock down shots. He can make plays on the back side. He’s an intelligent player and a presence out there on the perimeter."
World Peace helped slow Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari and guard Andre Miller. Together, Gallinari and Miller combined for six points on 2-of-19 shooting. World Peace also scored 15 points – 12 of which came on four 3-pointers – grabbed five rebounds and made four steals.
Bryant called World Peace’s play "infectious." Brown termed it "monstrous."
"He brings something different to their team," Miller said.
With the Lakers headed to OKC and a raucous crowd awaiting them, World Peace vowed the fun is just beginning.
"We are going to take you guys on a ride," he said. "Just wait and see what’s going on."
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