When last we saw Ron Artest, he was riffing in a playful but subtext-heavy way after being told Deron Williams felt he could "exploit" his speed while defended by #37. While clearly having fun with variations of the word "exploit," it was also clear Artest had fast-forwarded in his mind to Tuesday's possessions he'll spend hounding the guy many feel is the league's best point guard. Well, with 24 hours passed between game 1's postgame interview and today's practice, the topic didn't get spark the same enthusiasm from the former Defensive Player of the Year.
"It's definitely an advantage," shrugged Artest of Williams' fleetness. "He's a point guard. I'm a small forward. He's definitely quicker."
But while teasing the matchup something "y'all should look forward to," Artest remained considerably more subdued. The biggest rise from Artest was actually prompted in the context of comparing round two assignment D. Will to round one's Kevin Durant. One assumes Ron always knew Durantula is a pretty long drink of water, but he seemed genuinely in awe upon receiving tale of the tape's measurements.
"He got a 7'5" wingspan?" marveled Artest with a look of disbelief. "My goodness!"
As the Lakers' lone newbie, how Artest fits in has been a season-long question examined daily, hourly, even minute-ly. The outlook fluctuates seemingly possession-by-possession, has garnered reviews wildly mixed, and it's safe to say no true consensus will likely emerge until the postseason ends. (Of course, remaining fully aware of this reality will never amount to the media simply waiting to find out in lieu of asking over and over. That's just how we roll, apparently.)
For his part, Artest says he's comfortable in purple and gold, but also isn't evaluating the matter by the same criteria as everyone else.
"I don't really know what I brought to the table. I just know I play hard. I only know I play hard, and... I don't know. I just play hard. I don't really judge myself. I just try to prepare."
Has the coaching staff ever offered him an assessment of how he's meshing?
"They probably did. I probably wasn't listening," admitted Artest sheepishly. But again, the "hard play" mantra was stressed.
"I go to sleep just wanting to play hard. I even sleep rough. I'll be sleeping and just knocking my wife over the head. I even eat my breakfast rough."
Eggs still in the shell, people!!!
I've heard Ron talk countless times this season about how hard he plays and the importance of playing that way, but watching him today, it really occurred to me Artest just described his very essence. The guy's been pegged throughout his career as everything from the NBA's best defender to the NBA's most scatterbrained player to the NBA's most "bull in a china shop," whether on the court and in the locker room. Every label, at one point or another, was completely accurate and remains valid to some degree.
But watching him play an entire season for the first time in my basketball watching life, it's become clear the best way to capture Artest's essence is to simply say he plays "hard." That's really his style. "Hard."
At its best, this mentality is what makes Artest astonishingly relentless while checking a head-spinning array of elite players. He's like Tommy Lee Jones chasing Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. Dude just doesn't stop. At its worst, the "hard-charging above all else" mindset tunnel-visions him to the point of seeming unable to walk and chew gum at the same time, much less multi-task on the court. (In certain ways, it's a less nuanced version of what makes Kobe alternately brilliant and frustrating as a scorer.) But either way, if you ever really wondered how Artest sees himself as a player, there you have it.
As for the actual matchup between Artest and William, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson shared thoughts on the matter, among other topics.
Lamar Odom also offered some insight into his mentality as a second unit leader. The bench was under fire, particularly from LO himself, after quickly blowing an eight point lead to start the fourth, a failure requiring heroics from Kobe and Pau Gasol to secure the win. This showing on the heels of a fantastic game 6 effort in Oklahoma City underscores their erratic performance as a unit all season. Reliability hasn't been a strong suit, which makes a title defense considerably more difficult.
Lamar isn't just the most talented member of the second unit. He's also their leader, the one theoretically providing cues to youngsters Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown, and even seven-year veteran Luke Walton. Setting an example is a responsibility he takes very seriously, and providing an unselfish blueprint has sometimes led to providing fewer points than hoped for by fans, coaches and even teammates.
I asked LO about how he approaches the dual nature of his sixth man gig. From his viewpoint, forging a solid collective is more important than whatever he might bring to the table as an individual.
"We have to be able to do it together," insisted Odom. "Energy, they call it synergy. It's important in sports, especially in basketball. It's something you have to do in your mind and your heart and your soul."
Sure, he might be able to pour in 10 easy points, but that would be a quick fix. The equivalent of empty calories. He'd rather the bench mob cook together a meal with enough sustenance for the long haul.
"I'm thinking about what will make us better for game 6 and game 7 of the biggest games of our lives."
This goal requires everyone sacrificing a bit for the better of the group, becoming greater than the sum of their stats. But when everyone buys in, LO thinks the second unit is easily capable of maintaining or even building on the lead provided by the starters. And when they push ahead without Kobe or Pau on the court, that's when LO feels "we kind of crush team's hopes."
In addition to talking about LO's role, Phil talked about Andrew Bynum, who's playing through a small meniscus tear in his right knee. Surgery will likely lowlight Drew's offseason, but he's attempting to grit his teeth through what could be a touch-and-go process. The center has been a relatively minor presence against Utah over the last few seasons. He was injured during the 2008 series and benched during the final pair of games during last season's. Between that wrinkle, Mehmet Okur's absence and the non-existent scoring prowess of the Fes-Koufos duo, I wondered if, relatively speaking, this was the ideal round for Drew to be limited.
Phil conceded the team's past success without Bynum at full strength, but stopped well short of taking or leaving it:
"We feel we function quite well as a basketball team with or without Andrew on the floor. However, we're a different team when he's not. We have more depth obviously and size and length and offensive rebounding and the ability to get easy shots. We went through the playoffs two years ago and Lamar [Odom] filled that role quite well, so we're confident that we can play versus this team. We may lose a little bit [with Bynum injured], but we'll make it up."
Farmar quite literally feels Bynum's pain, having suffered the same injury last season. The injury is, technically speaking, one Farmar agrees can be played through if circumstances dictate the need. The playoffs would certainly qualify as pressing enough. But don't mistake being able to suit up for being pain-free. Farmar stressed this is no walk in the park for AB17:
"I think it's something you can play with. It's just annoying and painful. It's not excruciating end of the world type pain, but it's just something that you constantly feel. When you make certain moves, sometimes it doesn't respond the way you want it to... I definitely felt I could have played with it, but being mid-season and having a long career ahead of me, I wanted to get it done as soon as possible."
And finally, some nice words from Pau about what Derek Fisher's veteran presence means to this team. In short, tons. Frankly, Gasol wouldn't have minded a helping hand from Fish while he was carrying the load in Memphis.