New perspective has Artest playing it cool

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / June 2, 2010

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Ron Artest wasn’t interested in reliving his winning shot. But all the talk about his Game 5 buzzer-beater in the Western Conference finals, all the congratulations from fans in the street made him curious.

Over the holiday weekend, Artest watched the entire sequence again and again, sometimes going frame by frame. His dash across the paint for Kobe Bryant’s short 3-pointer. Pause. His backward-leaning shot as time expired. Pause. His leap into Bryant’s waiting arms. Pause. His teammates and fans celebrating at the Staples Center. Rewind.

“I rewinded it like 50 times,’’ said Artest. “I was like, ‘That’s pretty cool.’ ’’

Artest initially avoided replays to keep his focus on the future, on moving forward toward the NBA Finals. Considering how easily he can stray from unbelievable play to unpredictable player, it was the right idea. (Don’t forget that, prior to the game-winner, the home crowd nearly booed Artest off the court for horrendous shot selection.)

“I kind of wish we didn’t celebrate,’’ said Artest. “I kind of wish we just went off and went into the locker room, high-fived, and got out of there, just moved on, because we really didn’t do anything.

“But I guess I was in the moment. You can’t control what happens. You can’t control that emotion. The fans are emotional. The game is emotional. You try to control the emotion. You’ve got to be in control.’’

If that sounds like a player trying to keep himself on task, in the right frame of mind, and out of trouble, it is understandable. No one knows better than Artest what happens when he spirals out of control, when the technical fouls mount and the oddball behavior emerges. That was the big concern last summer when the Lakers signed Artest.

After weighing the risks and benefits, the Lakers gave Artest a five-year, $34 million contract last July. To be at his most productive, Artest needed a title-contending team with strong veteran leadership. Winning appears to keep him in check.

“The thing about Ron is he doesn’t get distract- . . .,’’ said Kobe Bryant, catching himself in a misstatement. “He might get distracted about other stuff, but he doesn’t get distracted about the game. He locks in very well.’’

Artest is the one addition the Lakers made to their 2009 championship team, the one player without a ring, the one without Finals experience. His assignment starting tomorrow will be to defend Paul Pierce, and given how Pierce averaged 21.8 points per game against the Lakers en route to 2008 NBA Finals MVP honors, the stage is set for him to dramatically impact the series. Asked how much of a difference having Artest makes in the Finals rematch, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, “Huge.’’

In the next sentence, however, Jackson recalled Artest’s regular-season foul trouble against the Celtics.

“That could happen,’’ he said. “We anticipate that those are things we’ll have to deal with.’’

The hope is that the Pierce assignment will keep Artest focused.

“Ron’s been very engaged in these playoffs,’’ said Jackson. “There’s been some [series] that he hasn’t been part of the action because a lot of the stuff he’s been asked to do has been players off-ball. Pierce is on-ball. So that’s going to create Ron on-ball type of activity. So there’ll be more focus there on that.’’

Bump in the road
During Artest’s largely undistinguished regular season, there was questionable focus and some bizarre moments. He averaged 11.0 points and 4.3 rebounds in 33.8 minutes per game, struggling with the triangle offense even late in the season.

While carrying Christmas presents in December, Artest fell, hit his head, and suffered a concussion that forced him to miss five games. After being slowed by extra weight packed onto his 6-foot-7-inch frame, he dropped 15 pounds and improved his conditioning in midseason. By the time the playoffs started, Artest knew he needed to prove his worth.

There is no predicting how Artest will react to the spotlight of the NBA’s biggest show. He has chosen to view the Finals as a collection of regular contests, claiming he has always “played every game like it was a championship game.’’

With the ultimate goal in sight, Artest is trying to say and do the right things. When asked what a championship ring would mean to him, he said, “I’m not looking that far ahead.’’

Reminded that he remarked how much he wanted a ring at his introductory Lakers news conference, Artest added, “Well, you set the goal. I guess it’s like when you’re cooking food. You buy the ingredients. You know what you want to make. We’re cooking right now. We’re still cooking. And you taste it later.’’

Regret and renewal
Wearing nothing but boxers and sneakers, Artest made a memorable entrance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!’’ last November. “I was running late,’’ he joked. But other than that, some bad hairdos (purple-and-gold dye jobs), and playoff tweets critical of Jackson, Artest has been relatively well-behaved. Relative, that is, to the bizarre standards he set during other NBA stops.

The well-documented risks that come with Artest date to his days with the Pacers. There was the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills, the rumored flirtation with retirement, the foray into music promotion, and the trade request. Artest called his behavior with Indiana his biggest regret.

“We had a chance to go to the championship when I was with Indiana,’’ he said. “But I wasn’t able to think the game. I was more egotistical, thinking about myself. When we lost Game 6 [of the Eastern finals] and I get a flagrant foul with like two minutes left in the game, what are you thinking about?

“What are you thinking about when you have a chance to go to the championship and Game 7 is back in Indiana? What could be more important than the game? That hurts a lot, to do that to Reggie Miller.

“What are you thinking when you’ve got a chance to win one, two, three rings? How do you do that to a team? I never thought I deserved to be in a situation like this. But I knew if I was ever in this situation, I wouldn’t take it for granted.’’

Indiana dealt Artest to Sacramento in January 2006. He credits a fresh start and coach Rick Adelman with helping change his attitude. After two seasons with the Kings, another trade sent him to the Rockets in August 2008. Less than a year later, he was with the Lakers.

Showing progress — or, at least, a changed perspective — Artest now can laugh at himself and at past transgressions. In the closing minutes of the Rockets’ series-clinching victory over Portland last season, Artest ran into the stands and celebrated with the home crowd. “I’ve been in the stands before,’’ he joked at the postgame news conference.

The celebration after the winning shot in Game 5 said as much as the sequence that produced it. As Artest and Bryant embraced, it was hard to imagine they had poked, pushed, and jawed at each other during the 2009 playoff series between the Lakers and Rockets. Lamar Odom, who grew up playing on AAU teams with Artest, joined the jubilant group hug. Soon the rest of the team followed, swallowing Artest in a mass of purple and gold. Finally, Artest looked like he belonged.

Asked if the moment finally made him feel part of the team, Artest said, “That’s kind of true.’’

“Ron’s always been intense and willing to compete at the highest level,’’ said Odom. “I told him this summer the reason why he should come here is to play basketball for a championship. It’s the biggest stage in basketball, to be a Laker and play for a championship versus the Celtics. I’m just happy he got the opportunity.’’

Artest is thankful for the opportunity. Not many players get multiple shots at redemption and a championship.

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