Updated: April 5, 2006, 2:52 AM ET
SPECIAL MIDWEEK EDITION:
Artest-ifying to Ron's impact
DALLAS -- Ron Artest
marched into the stands Tuesday night.
Artest was talking to his old college coach at midcourt about an hour before the Sacramento Kings faced the Dallas Mavericks. Fran Fraschilla, who recruited Artest to St. John's, pointed out his wife and children in their baseline seats.
Ron-Ron wanted to run over and see them. Fraschilla tried to tell him it wasn't necessary so close to the opening tip. Artest insisted and promptly headed for their section behind the basket.
He was determined to sign 13-year-old James Fraschilla's ARTEST jersey, ignoring that it was a yellow Pacers jersey.
The rest of the evening didn't go so well, but Tuesday's lopsided finish still managed to highlight the impact Artest has made in purple and black. Sacramento had held 13 consecutive opponents under 100 points before the Mavericks, shooting a ridiculous 61 percent from the field, inflicted this 127-101 blasting. "We haven't had a game like that in a long, long time," said Kings coach Rick Adelman, who didn't have to specify why.
I was first in line begging Sacramento not to gamble on him -- and I'm going to have to see more than a few good months to shed those misgivings -- but who am I to deny that the first 33 games of the new King's reign have been mostly good ones? They are 20-13 with him and only seven times in those 33 games has the opponent scored in triple digits, which used to be the Kings' usual.
That this Sacto no-show against the Mavs was greeted with such surprise, on both sides, suggests that Artest might have already changed the Kings' old pretty-boys image. He has an undeniable aura. He had Mavs coach Avery Johnson openly worried coming in how aggressively Dirk Nowitzki (29 points after slow start) would attack Artest's handsy defense. As venerable Kings assistant coach Pete Carril says: "Most nights, [Artest] just takes one guy out the game."
I admit it: I came here somewhat expecting an edgy Artest after a shaky 10-game run that actually began with his 6-for-22, trying-too-hard nightmare on March 17 in his emotional return to Conseco Fieldhouse. He shot only 33 percent from the field in those games (56-for-169), five of them losses, and seemed to be succumbing to frustration in a recent home defeat to Washington when he tripped Antawn Jamison and shoved Caron Butler.
Yet such fears proved unfounded in Big D. He laid a hard foul on Josh Powell early in the second quarter, sending the Dallas rookie into the basket support on a fast-break layup mere seconds after Powell viciously spiked a Brad Miller jumper, but Artest was also quick to whisper an apology to Powell just before the youngster shot his free throws.
And of greater importance . . .
After initially downplaying his recent shooting slump -- declaring that bad shots he takes should be shrugged off as if "Kobe or Tim Duncan or Michael Jordan" took them -- he reversed course after this humbling and admitted that he's been forcing things.
"I wasn't really playing with my team," Artest said after hitting 8 of 15 shots for a quiet 19 points against the Mavs. "When you don't play with your team, bad things happen."
It should be noted that, from the rest of the Kings, their next public complaint will be the first, even though they're clinging to a mere No. 8 seed in the West at 38-37. "We had a team that was going nowhere," said Kings owner Gavin Maloof. "We were seven or eight games under .500 when we got him. You don't see swings like that in this league."
Of course, before we can legitimately call these guys potential playoff spoilers to worry the Spurs or Suns, Sacramento has to get to the playoffs first. Artest says that's a "definite," but even if he's right Artest will then have to find some offensive consistency. Some freshness, too.
Before he pulled on a light grey suit jacket with "Tru Warier" (his record label) emblazoned over the left front pocket and in much bigger letters on the back, Artest could be seen at his locker with ice packs strapped to both knees, an ankle and an elbow.
"Getting better, getting better, getting better," Artest said. "I work with what I've got, so I just say I'm 100 percent.
"I'm nowhere near where I'm going to be. Next year I'll be much better, but I think I've [already] shook off the rust."
If not the eyes throughout the arena (and gnats like me) that still follow his every step.
"It's probably still there," Artest said of the constant attention. "I think when you do things or things happen to you at a certain place, and if you're still there, people are probably still expecting the same things. But when you go somewhere else, to a different place, people kind of forget. They see you in a new [light]."
What I still struggle to see most, though, is how folks can say the Kings have nothing to lose here. They are clearly more than one more piece away from contention even with their new Artest-Bibby-Brad Miller core, which presents a sufficiently challenging future for Kings personnel ace Geoff Petrie. But if this experiment doesn't work out -- and if the Kings do witness the implosion so many folks around the league consider inevitable -- what then? Will Artest be easier to trade a third time? At that point, could Sacto really call him a trade asset?
"I don't want to trade him," Gavin Maloof said, uninterested in hearing the above scenario as I started to run through it.
"I don't even want to think like that," Maloof said. "I want to keep him forever."
• Talk back to ... Marc Stein | The Daily Dime gang
• Dimes Past: March 29 | 30 | 31 | April 1-2 | April 3 | April 4
AP Photo/Mark Duncan
Cleveland's Larry Hughes charged back into the lineup -- and Philly forward Kyle Korver -- playing his first game since suffering a broken finger in December. "I know you can't get it back all in one night. I'm on a four or five-game pace to find my rhythm and help my team," Hughes said after scoring 10 points in 20 minutes.
It was right around the All-Star break that Gilbert Arenas told us: "We're going to be in the same spot we were last year. For some reason, I'm feeling that fifth spot."
Nearly two months later, Arenas is looking smart. The Wiz only have a 1 1/2-game lead over No. 6 Milwaukee entering the season's final two weeks, but they look more credible than any team outside the East's top four.
Which thrills Arenas for two reasons:
1) Washington, like every other lower seed in the East, badly wants Cleveland in the first round. That puts you in Detroit's bracket, true, but the Cavs' inexperience on the big stage makes them more enticing to meet in the first round than the Pistons, Heat or Nets.
2) I'm told Arenas would love -- love -- to see Cleveland's Larry Hughes in Round 1. Not because there's lingering ill will or anything, but because Arenas, as you know, is always looking for any perceived diss or source of extra fuel he can find. Beating Hughes' new team right after Hughes fled Washington in free agency? That qualifies.
You're going to hear this more before the start of the playoffs. Doesn't mean you should believe it, though.
Don't get your hopes if you're rooting against the Pistons and you're expecting Rasheed Wallace's temper to submarine Detroit's bid for a second championship in three seasons.
Wallace was forced to sit out Tuesday's home win over New Orleans/Oklahoma City through suspension, after accumulating his 16th technical of the season, but it's a serious stretch to suggest he's drifting back to his volatile Blazer worst.
'Sheed had 41 technical fouls in the 2000-01 season, 27 in 2001-02 and 27 as recently as last season.
Sixteen in 73 games, for 'Sheed, qualifies as restraint.
If he can maintain that pace in the playoffs, 'Sheed will only ring up one or two Ts per series. Which means he'll fall short of the seven Ts needed to incur a one-game playoff suspension.
Every player's T slate, remember, is wiped clean and reset to zero when the playoffs start.
I'm hearing that Charlotte's Bernie Bickerstaff is still undecided about coaching beyond this season. It's believed he'll only coach one more year, at most, before focusing on front-office duties full-time, but it won't surprise anyone in coaching circles if the 61-year-old decides to leave the bench at season's end.
What's more clear in Charlotte is the plan to curtail its roster expenditures for at least one more summer. This will be the first offseason that the Bobcats have full use of the salary cap, but it appears that an underwhelming free-agent class -- and a franchise belief that they have a grace period until season No. 4 to make their first real playoff push -- has the Bobs preferring to wait until the summer of '07 to make their first free-agent splash.
They can still freshen up next season's roster by bringing back a healthy Emeka Okafor, integrating their forthcoming lottery pick and dealing point guard Brevin Knight.