Artest's defense is big-game difference

As far as Ron Artest is concerned, the Lakers haven't done anything yet. They may be 45-15 after beating the Denver Nuggets 95-89 on Sunday, giving them a five-game cushion atop the Western Conference, but none of that registers for Artest as he sits in front of his locker, fiddling with his iPhone.

"We haven't beaten any good teams this year," Artest said. "I don't know a big win that we've had. I think this is big win but we haven't proved anything this year. We've just beaten the teams we're supposed to beat."

It could be argued the Lakers, who are 8-8 this season against the top eight teams in the NBA, have only won two "big games" this season -- Sunday's win against Denver after the Nuggets had beaten the Lakers by double digits in their last two meetings, and the Lakers' 90-89 win over the Boston Celtics at TD Garden one month ago in a similarly intense Sunday afternoon game.

The key down the stretch in both of those games was Artest's defense.

In the final minute of the win over the Celtics, Artest made a runner in the lane to pull the Lakers to within one and then drew an offensive foul while guarding Paul Pierce, which set up Kobe Bryant's game-winning basket.

Against the Nuggets, Artest hounded Carmelo Anthony, forcing him to make eight turnovers and frustrating him to the point he pushed off on Artest and drew an offensive foul late in the game. The play not only gave the ball back to the Lakers, who were up 93-89 with 2:13 left, but sent Anthony to the bench with six fouls. About a minute before, Artest made a three-pointer to give the Lakers the lead for good.

"I thought he was pushing me off the whole game but the refs weren't calling it, but they called that one," said Artest, who finished with 17 points and a season-high six steals. "You can't push off. I thought it was a good call. Late in the game people don't always make calls like that but a good call is a good call. If they didn't call it I wouldn't have been mad either."

After the play, Artest pumped his fist three times as he walked toward the Lakers bench, as if he had just made a game-winning basket.

"He did a great job. He earned his money tonight," said Bryant. "That's what he's here for. He's here to defend and make life uncomfortable for the opponent. He just did a fantastic job."

Artest has talked about his new workout regimen in which he runs five miles a day and doesn't eat after 9 p.m. He said he's down to 255 pounds from 268 pounds six weeks ago and wants to get to 250 pounds by the end of the season.

Artest credits his weight loss with his late-game stamina and ability to stay with quicker players. "In the last four games I held my opponent under their average," he said. "That's the rhythm I get defensively. Some people get in a shooting rhythm but I get in a defensive rhythm. I'm in a rhythm right now defensively and I'll continue trying to keep people under their average."

Anthony entered Sunday's game averaging 29 points and shooting 45.9 percent from the field but against Artest he scored 21 points and shot 36.8 percent. More importantly, however Anthony had eight turnovers and fouled out with over two minutes left in a four-point game.

"Ron did a great job of making it hard for him, keeping his hand in his face," said Lamar Odom. "Carmelo's so big and so skilled there's only so much you can do. Ron did a good job just giving him a hard time and giving him different looks. He's just physical."

The Lakers seemed to feed off Artest's physical play and intensity in the second half after falling behind by as many as 13 points in the second quarter. Artest had three steals and three rebounds in the pivotal third quarter while pestering Anthony into three turnovers and two fouls.

"It was our best half in a long time because Kobe was getting doubled and he was getting frustrated with calls and continued to play," Artest said. "We want to get a streak going already. I don't think we've played great this year consistently."

Artest said Sunday was perhaps his best overall game as a Laker even though he only played with about "95 percent effort."

So what's holding Artest back from giving that final five percent?

"I can play better. I made some dumb mental errors," said Artest. "I think it's possible to play 100 percent. I think we can do that every game."

Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.