Artest sets tone, Lakers follow

SAN ANTONIO -- Ron Artest is sitting in the corner of the cramped visiting locker room at the AT&T Center, picking at his finger nails as his feet soak in a tub of ice water below him. With nothing but a towel around his waist and scowl around his face he looks at the floor as teammates around him answer questions about his defensive performance in the Lakers' 92-83 win over the Spurs.

"He's been doing this all year," said Kobe Bryant, who had 24 points. "Ever since he went on his diet program he's been a lot quicker, faster and more agile. People are probably paying more attention to him tonight than they have been but I've been seeing this night in and night out."

Across the room, Lamar Odom, changing in his customary locker next to his old friend from New York, smiled as he thought about Artest's stripping Matt Bonner from behind late in the game and following his play by blowing kisses to the purple-and-gold-clad Lakers fans in the crowd.

"I've been seeing him do that for a long time," said Odom, who battled through a sore left shoulder to score 19 points and grab 13 rebounds. "It's funny he can let a guy go by him and pick him from the back. He's a master defender and master entertainer."

Artest was a terrorizing force in what was perhaps his best defensive game as a Laker and what was easily the team's best second-half defensive performance of the season. Artest had five steals, one blocked shot and 12 points in the second half as the Lakers came back from a 10-point deficit in the first half to go up by as many as 13 in the fourth quarter to run their winning streak to seven games.

"Defense is like a drug to me," Artest said. "Eventually as I get older that drug won't be there no more because your body is going to deteriorate but while I still got that drug I love it. I'm in a groove defensively and that's all I care about. Offensively I could care less."

Artest, who finished with 16 points and eight rebounds, continues to credit his renewed defensive effort to his weight loss, which he says is the result of running five miles a day and not eating after 9 p.m. He's down to 255 pounds from 270 at the start of the season and says he expects he'll be 250 pounds for the playoffs.

"Guys think I'm the same guy I was two or three years ago but since I've gotten lighter guys need to be reminded don't dribble around me too much," he said. "I'm a different player."

Whether Artest's defense will make for a different Lakers team in the playoffs is still up for debate. There are only 11 games and three weeks left in the regular season and coach Phil Jackson must still pause and think when he's asked if his team has what it takes to repeat as NBA champion.

"You know, I can't really judge that or gauge that right now," said Jackson, leaning against the concrete wall outside of the visiting locker room. "We've played relatively lackluster ball and beaten some teams that are out of the playoffs. I haven't been sufficiently impressed by them, but I keep getting assurances that they are better than they show."

That's right, the Lakers are no different than your normal procrastinating adolescents; promising daddy Zen Master they're better than their grades show and assuring him they'll turn it around before the Finals. If their win against the Spurs is any indication, they are certainly capable of flipping a switch come crunch time.

For a team that doesn't believe in barometer games, measuring sticks and litmus tests, Wednesday's game against the Spurs was all of the above for them. This was a tough road game against a playoff rival they may very well see in the postseason. This was an opportunity to truly test drive this year's model of the Lakers, which has had its share of complaints from consumers from the moment it hit the showroom floor despite having the best record in the West.

So far this season the Lakers have defeated the teams they were supposed to beat, struggled against the best teams in the NBA and were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team most projected before the season began to be their opponent in the NBA Finals.

Jackson, however, says he thinks the Lakers may have turned a corner and doesn't expect to see the finished product until the playoffs, which has been the idea all along.

"We've always said you have to measure the season and at some point you want to have the ability to finish strong," Jackson said. "That 'finish strong' isn't the regular season, it's the playoffs and this is like the 20-mile point in the marathon where you want to have enough to get through here and you want to have a kick left at the end."

If the Lakers are to have a proverbial kick heading into the playoffs it may have started in San Antonio, against a Spurs team that has always been a measuring stick for the Lakers since Bryant has been in Los Angeles, but don't look for him to admit it.

"Signature wins come in the Finals," said Bryant, shaking his head at the thought beating the Spurs meant anything more than win No. 53. "Signature wins in the regular season don't exist."

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