Artest finally feeling like a Laker

PHOENIX -- As Ron Artest soaked his feet in an ice bucket in front of his locker, the Western Conference championship he had just been given was crumpled next to him among three chewed up orange slices and his torn up ankle tape.

The championship shirt he had just been given was crumpled on the other side of the bucket beside empty candy wrappers and flip-flops.

Artest didn't come to Los Angeles to simply win a Western Conference title and wasn't about to put on his new gear as he essentially discarded both as soon as he sat down.

After experiencing the biggest moment of his career -- the dramatic buzzer-beating cutback to win Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals -- he had arguably the biggest game of his career in clinching the West for the Los Angeles Lakers in their 111-103 win in Game 6 over the Phoenix Suns.

Artest scored 25 points, making 10 of 16 from the field and four of seven from 3-point range while adding four rebounds, three steals and two assists. He consistently made the Suns pay for leaving him wide-open, which they also did in Game 5 where he went 2-for-9, missing all three of his attempts beyond the arc and finishing with only four points.

While Artest constantly told reporters after the game he had no feelings yet on playing in the NBA Finals and being four wins away from winning a championship ring, he was sort of caught red-handed after most reporters had left and he got a phone call from his son on his iPhone. As soon as his phone rang, a picture of the Lakers' championship ring from last season shined brightly. Artest had made the photo the background of his phone recently but didn't want anyone to know about it as he quickly covered it up.

"You saw that, huh?" Artest said with a smile. "I look at that all the time and I see it as a blessing. If I had that, phew, I don't know what I'd do."

Artest would call his son later but laughed as he thought back to the conversation he had with him after Game 5. While most kids would want to talk about the game-winning shot, his 9-year-old wanted to know about his misses.

"I need to call my son back," he said. "He got on my case after the last game. 'Daddy, how come you're missing so many shots?' He was on me."

Luckily for Artest and the Lakers, the Suns weren't on Artest at all Saturday night. In fact, every time he touched the ball outside the paint, they basically begged him to shoot. It was the type of "disrespectful defense," as he called it, which caused him to go for 20 points, hitting four of seven 3-pointers against the Utah Jazz when Jerry Sloan basically told his players to ignore Artest if he ventured beyond the arc.

"Sometimes they leave me wide open and I'm like, c'mon, you guys played against me before," Artest said. "These guys know what type of player I am, so why are they leaving me open? I felt disrespected, I'm not the No. 1 guy anymore, so I can't take them out in the perimeter and abuse them the whole game. So these guys are trying to take advantage of that. It's disrespectful to say let's see what you can do."

Artest had already sacrificed money, stats and playing time to come to the Lakers but wasn't about to be disrespected on the biggest stage by coaches daring him to take open shots he had 10 years to prove he could make.

"Ron's been a No. 1 option on his team the last few years, and this is new for him," said his childhood friend and Lakers forward Lamar Odom. "We have a lot of No. 1 options on this team and I told him in the summer this was the reason why he should come here. I knew he'd do well in this system and we could win a championship together."

When Lakers director of athletic performance Chip Schaefer walked into the locker room after the game, he turned to Artest and reminded him he was going to the NBA Finals to play the Boston Celtics. Schaefer recalled seeing Artest in the Lakers' locker room after the Lakers were embarrassed by the Celtics in Game 6 of the NBA Finals two years ago. That night, Artest, who was a spectator in the crowd and watched the Celtics beat the Lakers 131-92 to win the title, walked up to Kobe Bryant in the shower and told him he wanted to come to Los Angeles and help Bryant beat Boston and win a ring.

"It seems like just yesterday," Schaefer said. "We've come full-circle."

Artest, who can barely remember yesterday's practice, had a harder time recalling the incident but smiled at the thought of finally being able to come through on his promise to help Bryant and the Lakers two years later.

"It was so long ago, it's hard to remember," he said. "I always enjoyed competing against Kobe when everyone was afraid to compete against him, and that made me respect him more, and that made me want to be a teammate of his."

Before the season started, Artest, the lone new member of the team, simply wanted to fit in and blend with the Lakers. That isn't the easiest thing for a player who has always done things his way, whether it be his wild hairdos or taking 3-pointers regardless of the shot clock.

Yet as he got ready to leave the locker room, four wins away from the championship ring everyone in the locker room has except for him, he finally felt a part of the team. After constantly being compared to Trevor Ariza and having his addition questioned by critics, his performance in the last two games has made him officially feel like a Laker, finally.

"It just, like, clicked all of the sudden," Artest said as he interlocked his fingers, with one hand representing himself and the other representing the team. "Boom. The perfect connection. I do have that feeling. We're one. We just became one."

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